Cambria residents are painfully aware that their community’s hilly landscape; tall, abundant trees; and water supply issues are a potentially dangerous combination.
As fire season approaches, the annual routine of encouraging property owners to rid their parcels of wildfire fuel—brush, weeds, dead vegetation, and the like—is about to start. Property owners who don’t do the job themselves will have it done for them, at a cost, as is the practice of cities and communities across the state.
So why has the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) quietly issued some sizable refunds to allegedly negligent property owners? And why does the small coastal community of roughly 6,500 residents have so many violators compared to other communities?
According to CCSD officials, their policy is sound—but there have been some “rough edges.”
In 2011, the district refunded thousands of dollars in liens and administrative fees placed on 83 property owners’ tax bills the year before after questions arose about the legality of its procedures and a complaint was filed with the SLO County Grand Jury.
Curiously, the issue of weed abatement was reported to have played a role in the firing, then re-hiring, of District Fire Chief Mark Miller and the subsequent firing of former General Manager Tammy Ruddock by the CSD’s Board of Directors last April.
Since 2010, Richard Morriss has led a crusade of sorts against the district after he was charged a hefty sum for allegedly failing to groom his property to local standards. Morriss is a 68-year-old retired psychologist from Carmel Valley who’s co-owned a home on three connected parcels of property on Croyden Lane in Cambria since 2003.
Morriss says the CCSD failed to provide residents due process by not allowing them to fix a violation or appeal district decisions. Morriss and a number of residents argue that the district’s process is out of whack with state law.
On July 22, 2010, the district placed a lien of $2,148 on Morriss’ property tax bill a month after its contractor came to his property and “literally scalped” it of its “green vegetation,” Morriss said. He told New Times he had cleared the area himself less than a month before.
Morris said he received no notice that he was in violation, and he tried in vain to see documentation that his property was inspected. After he failed to get a response from the district, he filed an official claim against the CCSD in October. His claim was rejected without explanation in December.
He wrote to County Supervisor Bruce Gibson in February 2011, providing Gibson a voluminous packet of documentation, laying out his beef.
“It appears clear to us that the CCSD uses their flawed and illegal weed abatement procedures to generate revenue from well-intended homeowners who, like us, would have gladly voluntarily complied,” Morriss wrote to Gibson.
Gibson told New Times he directed Morriss back to the CCSD to verify that then-General Manager Tammy Ruddock and the Board of Directors were aware of his case. Morriss followed through, sending his paperwork—including his correspondence from Gibson—to each board member, and to Ruddock.
He then received a brief letter from Ruddock telling him the board would address his complaint in closed session.
Then Fire Chief Mark Miller was fired. At the time, KSBY TV reported that Miller had refused to take responsibility for mismanagement of the CCSD’s weed abatement policy.
“When I read that I thought, ‘Gee, maybe we’re getting somewhere,’” Morriss said.
But Morris never got his response after Ruddock was fired on April 29 and Miller was reinstated. On May 25, he got a call from the CSD’s attorney, Tim Carmel, who said he would be refunded his entire amount for the 2010 weed abatement service. Morriss accepted, but said he still wanted the district to adjust its procedure for everyone.
In September, Morriss filed a complaint with the SLO County Grand Jury.
CSD General Manager Jerry Gruber didn’t return several requests for comment from New Times. However, Carmel—who’s been with the district only two years—told New Times it’s his opinion that the district’s policy was always in line with state law, but it underwent some changes in 2011.
“That’s when we really took a close look at it,” Carmel said, adding that no claims had been filed or refunds issued in 2009. “It’s not a simple process, and there was a lot of confusion, which resulted in a fair amount of money [in fees].”
Now, he said, the district directly notifies violators after their inspections, before any work is done, in addition to its policy of holding a public hearing for appeals. Afterward, property owners are directly billed instead of liens automatically being placed on the property taxes.
“There were bumps in the process, yes, but what [Chief] Miller is trying to do is to make it friendlier,” Carmel said.
He couldn’t comment on what specifically brought about the changes, nor on what role the confusion played in the Miller/Ruddock dual firing fiasco.
“You would have to ask [Ruddock],” he said.
Miller couldn’t be reached as of press time, but Fire Department Cpt. William Hollingsworth told New Times that sometimes inspection mistakes happen.
While no one is disputing that fire hazard reduction is Cambria’s top safety priority, many residents and absentee property owners wonder why the town is so different from other geographically similar areas in the county.
Morro Bay, for example, performs weed removal on an average of only about five properties a year, according to Fire Chief Mike Pond. He didn’t want to criticize another department, but said the 83 abatements sounded “a bit high.”
Templeton also mirrors some of Cambria’s physical characteristics and is within 1,000 people of its population, but their results differ, as well. Templeton CSD Fire Department Chief Jim Langborg said they cleared weeds on only 12 properties in 2011.
Langborg said his district notifies residents at least three times before sending the contractors onto their property, and has likely only issued “a couple” refunds in as many years.
Carmel acknowledged that—while he hasn’t seen comparative figures—Cambria likely performs more weed abatement services than other communities in the county. In 2010, the CSD charged a total of $66,413.50 in contractor fees for the 83 parcels serviced. In 2009, the district charged 102 properties a total of $72,927, and last year’s inspections resulted in 72 parcels being abated, though an official tally of those charges weren’t available as of press time.
“I think because of the state of the pine forest, the unique topography, and climate, which is very unique to Cambria, dealing with the fire fuel load is far more critical,” Carmel said. “The potential for serious fires in Cambria exists in an extraordinary state.”
He added that there’s only one claim still active from 2010.
That would be Steve Gordon, a Pismo Beach resident, who owned three parcels on Karen Way in Cambria for more 30 years, and was charged more than $4,000, though he said he regularly maintained the lot and was never given notice that he was out of compliance. Suddenly, he said, he was on the hook for a service worth more than one of his parcels.
After a year of back-and-forth, he said, Carmel offered him a refund of $3,090. But Gordon’s still holding out for the full amount.
“I did my part, and they still charged me, but of course I didn’t know until I looked at my taxes,” Gordon said. “It’s sneaky. And it’s wrong.”
As weed abatement reminders will begin to go out to property owners again in May, Carmel said he isn’t aware of the CCSD yet being contacted by the Grand Jury. ∆
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.