- Jeffrey Siegel
Neighbors Banding Together to Force Los Gatos Staff Accountability
At 9am, on August 26th, with the morning already heating up on a particularly hot summer day, about thirty residents of the Glen Ridge Park neighborhood, met under the shade of giant trees at Bachman Park with three members of Los Gatos town staff – town attorney Robert Shultz, Community Development Director Joel Paulson, and Los Gatos Building Director Robert Gray. In the beginning, with everyone wearing masks for Covid-19 related safety, it looked like a scene out of the western movie, somewhat like a shootout at the OK Corral, with town staff on one side and a large contingent of upset neighbors on the other side.
The purpose of this unconventional meeting was to demand action from town staff who had for several years overlooked the long abandoned house at 94 Ellenwood which had been stripped of its exterior siding, doors, and windows, and left to decay in blatant disregard for the town’s historic preservation laws that forbid this from happening. The owners, unhappy that the historic preservation committee wouldn’t allow them to tear the house down, decided to allow it to remain in a state of ongoing decay in the hopes that the town would eventually give that permission to demolition it. Given its state of decay, and left vulnerable to the elements for years, the house had become a significant fire hazard and the owners, when approached by several neighbors about this life-threatening situation simply didn’t care.
At the Bachman Park meeting, many neighbors recited their issues with the owner, and the many complaints that had been lodged by residents with town staff over years, to no avail. Simply put the town attorney and staff turned a blind eye to the issue allowing it to fester to a boiling point where with raging wildfires coming with certainty in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains, the neighborhood had to band together in order to get the desperately needed attention that demanded action.
Wildfire embers can travel over several miles carried on strong winds and this house would have been the first to have gone ablaze had embers been flying, putting other neighboring homes at increased risk. The situation should have been dealt with long ago as the attorney admitted, but the truth was, without the neighborhood coming together as a unified force, pushing the issue, and demanding action, nothing was ever going to happen. This is not the way it should have happened, and a gross oversight on the part of town staff who allowed it to fester for too long. Had the neighbors not collectively demanded action, it would have continued to be overlooked for many years to come.
But that’s not a risk a historic neighborhood, containing many century-plus old homes that were never fire hardened, can afford to take.
And so, with a unified voice demanding action on that hot August day, and with no more excuses that could be plausibly made, town staff was forced to take the matter seriously as homeowners weren’t going to back down, and were going to hold town staff accountable. Under the threat of legal action, the property owner, who happens to live a block away, was compelled to begin cleaning up all the debris and dead brush that was waiting for ignition. But that was just the start. For the property owner, in the end, got exactly what he wanted, the green light to demolish the dilapidated structure so he could start building anew. Recognizing the wide latitude it gave the property owner to build whatever he wanted, including an out of character modern style home, additional restrictions were levied requiring that any new design pass muster with the historic preservation committee before getting permitted to ensure it would be in character with the neighboring historic homes.
The real point to this story is that only with the strength of a neighborhood-wide effort was it possible to after years of being ignored finally get town staff actions to be taken. This is precisely why the Los Gatos Historical Society exists – to serve as a unifying voice for residents of our historic neighborhoods, and to take actions that preserve our quality of life. Special thanks to Alan Feinberg for being the catalyst that sparked the neighborhood into action. And to all the neighbors who promptly responded and whose combined energy made the difference that will keep our neighborhood just a little bit more fire safe as the real wildfire season is still ahead of us.