And the Fat Lady Sings
Some interesting things happening this week in Our Town Tustin. If you peruse the city’s website, you may have noticed The Planning Commission, acting as the Building Board of Appeals, held a special meeting on Tuesday, February 7, 2012. The sole item on the agenda was the resolution to the Bret Fairbanks property. Fairbanks, as you may know, is a homeowner in Old Town Tustin. He owns a historical house that dates to the 1920’s and it is a beautiful property.
We have written several times in the past about Bret Fairbanks and his saga, which started in July of 2010 when he decided to sell the house he had owned for years because his family had outgrown it. He was fortunate to find a buyer, even in this market, and the lender asked for a letter from the city stating the two “apartments” in the rear of the house could be rebuilt in case of fire or earthquake. What started out as a simple request from the city turned Fairbanks’ world into a nightmare, complete with scary ghouls and ghosts. Not only did the city refuse to sign a letter, they demanded to know by what authority he had apartments on his property that was not zoned for them. The “apartments, by the way, are 300 and 400 square feet, respectively.
The city inspectors came out and inspected the property for an entire 20 minutes. It is conceivable they spent more time writing the letter that they sent Fairbanks, informing him that the apartments were not permitted (of course, the city has no permits for anything that old because they were destroyed by… the city) and, therefore, were considered a public nuisance. They demanded that numerous violations be cured and that the buildings be brought into conformance with the Tustin Building Code. Of course, the issue was raised that these are historical buildings and the State Historical Building Code should prevail but the city, headed by Community Development Director, Elizabeth Binsack and her hired hand, Henry Huang, would have none of that. The law was the law.
Fairbanks then appealed his case to the Planning Commission and they, being of sounder mind and less vehemency toward Old Town, found in favor of the homeowner. Then, for some reason, possibly because of his love of all things redevelopment, Mayor Jerry Amante got into the act (or, was he already involved, pulling a few strings). It became clear that Jerry and his talking head, Elizabeth, were out to take down the rebel Fairbanks. They had little use for Old Town as a whole and, obviously, the city would be better off if they were just allowed to declare the entire area “blighted” so they could bulldoze it and turn it into condos.
Lines in the sand were drawn and it was clear that not everyone in the city was happy with the way things were going. When the order of the Planning Commission, who found largely in favor of Fairbanks, was appealed to the City Council, even Jerry could not muster the votes required to overturn the Commission’s decision. Sitting there redfaced and about to blow steam, he blustered about while glaring at his arch-nemesis, Deborah Gavello as he searched for the comforting arm of Elizabeth. That vote, of course, should have been the end of it. Bret met with city officials and attempted to hammer out an agreement. At their behest, he hired an architect and a structural engineer both of whom inspected the property and wrote reports. In his report, the structural engineer also found a cracked beam in the garage that had previously gone undetected by the “professionals” at the city building department. The City Building Official and Binsack’s hired hand, Henry Huang, then asked the two professionals their opinion on whether the buildings could continue to be occupied before the repairs were made. Both the architect and the structural engineers opined the apartments were safe for occupancy as long as repairs were made in a timely manner.
So, what did Elizabeth Binsack do? In what could only be construed as retaliation for questioning her authority, she immediately directed staff to red tag the buildings, declaring them unsafe for occupancy and forcing the residents to move immediately. There was no subsequent inspection by the city. In fact, Dennis McCreary of Tustin’s Community Development Department stated he had taken some of the photos the city has used to cite safety violations. McCreary said he had not revisited the property since September. He was in the car when the notice was posted, but did not get out or examine the guest homes beforehand. They city simply cited the same conditions noted back in September of the previous year. The tenants were relocated immediately and Fairbanks went back to the city. The city appointed a hearing officer and, for the next 5 months, hearings were held on the matter. Public testimony was taken but it has not been publicized, probably because the city does not like to air its dirty laundry.
Had they done so, the public would have found out that Building Official Henry Huang has a faulty memory. So much so, they might question his ability to continue working for the city. During the hearings, Huang’s most often used phrases were, “I don’t know”, and “I don’t remember” (Henry, that’s what notebooks and PDAs are for) The public would have found that Huang could offer no real reason for red tagging the buildings, as neither he nor his staff reinspected them, and merely cited the original violations even though the Building Appeals Board had provided an effective remedy. It would have become clear to the public, at this point, that he had his marching orders. From who? His boss is Elizabeth Binsack and quite probably her puppet master, Jerry? It has been obvious that Binsack was more than willing to do Amante’s “wet work” in the past. Amante attended at least one or two of the appeal hearings, even though he was not giving testimony. What other appeal hearings has he attended as “an interested party”? I would wager to say, none.
I was speaking to another resident of Old Town who is close to Bret and his wife. He told me what is amazing about all of this is that the city has drawn out this issue for a year and a half and they have little to show for it. In fact, the resolution that resolved this entire issue on Tuesday, has basically the same remedies that were originally required of Fairbanks to fix the property and get his letter. The only other items required were the beam that the city would never have known about had it not been for Bret’s structural engineer, and that the 2010 building codes would be used. There was one other item to remove the carport between the garage and house for fire clearance issues. Minor stuff at best. And, where was Jerry? Sitting smugly in the audience, looking as if he had won something. Someday, someone will tell him who the real losers are in this.
Something else the resident also said should chill the heart of every homeowner in Tustin: “The City is making property owners give up the land-use rights” by forcing them to sign deed restrictions for guest units that are passed on to subsequent buyers forever. And why? There is no state law. There is no county ordinance. There is no city ordinance. But, unless someone, like Bret Fairbanks, stands up to the city tyrant and his talking head, we will all be subject to the law of Jerry.
Thankfully, this city-bred nightmare is over for Bret Fairbanks and his family. I would like to congratulate them and thank them for not succumbing to the draconian force of the city and it’s so-called fathers. It is unfortunate that it has cost him in time, money and probably a few years of his life. He will probably sell his house and move from Old Town Tustin and that is a big loss to all of us who will have benefited from his trials. Our Town Tustin wishes him well.
As for the rest of Old Town, we have ten more months of Jerry and who know how long we will suffer the wrath of Binsack? One thing’s for sure, the ordeal is over for Bret and his family and I distinctly heard the fat lady sing.
Posted on February 8, 2012, in Local Government, orange county, Politics, Tustin City Council and tagged building department, conspiracy theories, cronyism, Elizabeth Binsack, Jeff Thompson, Old Town Tustin, Tustin City Council, tustin planning commission. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.