“It’s Chinatown, Jake.” It’s a great punchline from a well known Jack Nicholson classic. And, just like that great movie, this tale encompasses dark individuals and shadowy connections in government. Most readers are familiar with the Fairbanks property, a private residence built circa 1929 in Old Town Tustin. Bret Fairbanks has been trying to sell his property, consisting of a main building and 2 apartments, because his family has outgrown the main house. Last year, he approached the city and asked for a letter, requested by a potential buyer, that would state the apartments located on the property could be rebuilt should they burn down. Of course, it had to go before the Planning Commission. So, the city staffers went to work.
In December of last year, the Planning Commission determined that some staff recommendations were unnecessary and deleted them from the proposed resolution making the Fairbanks property a non-conforming rental unit. Not exactly accurate, but close enough. After some back and forth between the commission, the city attorney and Fairbanks, the resolution was passed, 4-0. Case closed, done deal.Fairbanks had some work to do to bring the properties up to the safety standard that the Planning Commission set and everything looked like a go.
Well, not exactly.
Fast forward to the February 15, 2011 meeting of the City Council. Mayor Jerry Amante decides he doesn’t like the Planning Commission’s actions regarding Fairbank’s property and appeals to the city council where he holds the majority (usually). The item was put on hold until March 1st, at the Fairbank’s request, presumably to prepare for the appeal by the Mayor. At that meeting, Jerry’s talking head in the Community Development Department, Elizabeth Binsack, stated that the city decided, even though the Planning Commission approved the structures on the property largely because of their historical significance, that they were just wrong. Plain wrong. Elizabeth and her staff, probably prodded by Jerry, decided that the Planning Commission, which the mayor and council appoint, was in error and the resolution allowing for the non-conforming property should be withdrawn. Essentially, she argued that non-conforming structures need to conform to code or their use could not be waived. Yes, you heard right. She essentially demanded that the resolution be withdrawn because the structures do not conform to the modern building code. We already knew that, Elizabeth. Never mind that the structures involved are historical in nature and never mind that most, if not all, homes in Old Town Tustin do not have any ascertainable permitting and are probably out of sync with the modern building code. She decided it was wrong and so it must be wrong. Of course, after a three hour debate, where the Fairbanks and their attorney presented information on the historical nature of the structures and offered to comply with the original resolution, the council -in a rare vote against Boss Tweed Amante- decided to affirm the Planning Commission’s resolution. Good deal. Done deal.
On March 15th, Amante brought out letters, affidavits and stones written with blood stating that, in an apparent conspiracy plot he uncovered against him and the city, everyone has been lying about this property and that the apartments, built by a former Tustin building official by the way, should not be permitted non-conforming or otherwise. In that meeting, it was clear that Amante was upset that he had been opposed and was out for revenge, regardless of the cost to Fairbanks or the rest of Old Town. Doing the bidding of her boss, Binsack continued to back him up. After his tirade against the Fairbanks property was over, the vote was taken to uphold the appeal and, of course, failed. He did gain another vote when his hit man, Mayor pro tem John Nielsen, changed coats and sided with him. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and the appeal was again denied. Great. Now the Fairbanks could move forward.
Except that the building department, at the Talking Head’s behest, red tagged the buildings.
Bret Fairbanks and his family have been working diligently to resolve the issues concerning the apartments. By the way, these “apartments” are far from luxurious. Speaking with Bret’s dad a few weeks ago, he said the apartments are between 300 and 400 square feet. In some homes, that would be a closet. In any case, they have, up to now, been a minor asset to the property and a significant charm to this Old Town residence. At one point during the most recent Planning Commission Special Meeting on July 26th, Bret stood in exasperation before the Commission and stated that all he ever wanted to do was to comply with the order of the Commission and get his letter so he could sell his property. He has, essentially, complied with all requirements but the issue appears to be that the city insists on using the modern building code instead of the California Historical Building Code, which should prevail as there is no doubt that this building and the apartments in question are historically protected. The property, including all of its buildings is listed on the Historical Registry. But, instead of working with Fairbanks to preserve this great property, the city has worked diligently to thwart him at every turn. At one point he said he was out of money because of the city’s bloodletting.
This is our city and the hardhearted, unfeeling and, apparently ignorant Community Development Department, led by Binsack, who are working against the very essence that is Tustin. Old Town used to have a conservancy that worked for both the city and the citizens who chose to live in the Old Town area. Of course, the city council could not have anything standing in the way of their “vision” for the city as a whole. The mayor and council control the Planning Commission membership (but, fortunately, not how they think). Anyone who has ever dealt with the Community Development Department (as I have) knows they can be charming while putting a gun to your head. The code enforcement believes they have a right to trample your property at will anytime they see fit if they even think a nail is out of place. If the Planning Department invites you to a meeting, my advice is to take your lawyer with you. And guess what? Your conservative mayor, who should be standing for limited government, backs them all to the hilt. Could it be because he has a real estate background? Could it be because his failed Assembly run leaves him few other career choices after leaving office? This is all the more reason why this mayor, who touts fiscal responsibility but squanders money on lawsuits against the school district and micromanages the building department, should be recalled. As the Recall Amante folks say, “How long can we afford this mayor?”
Bret Fairbanks has another hearing on this matter on August 30, 2011 at 10 a.m. in the large conference room at the Tustin Library. Let’s all wish the Fairbanks family and their supporters luck with this. I hope that in the update I provide after the hearing, I will have good news to report. In the meantime, maybe someone can whisper in Elizabeth’s ear, “It’s Old Town, Elizabeth.”