Progress in fixing the 'Great Wall of Coarsegold'

Water privatization meeting Nov. 7; new program for elders

Carmen GeorgeNovember 1, 2012 

The infamous "Great Wall of Coarsegold" -- a massive, eroding three-tiered retaining wall at Highway 41 at the corner of Raymond Road (415) -- is getting much closer to a much-needed and long-awaited makeover.

While Madera County remains stuck in litigation with the bankrupted owners over whose to blame for the defective concrete block wall -- which is now missing dozens of foundation bricks, cracking and sagging -- the property's creditors hired Jay's Construction Inc. last week to start gearing up for construction to prevent a catastrophic blowout.

But for dirt to be moved and construction to begin, the creditors must have the approval of the property's trustee, Richard Kipperman, who was appointed by a judge to be in charge of the property after the owners of the 65,000-square-foot 2T's Mini Storage filed for bankruptcy this summer.

Bob Gabriele, assistant county counsel, addressed a crowd of more than 50 people Oct. 25 about the status of the Coarsegold wall during District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler's Town Hall meeting at the Coarsegold Community Center.

On Tuesday, Gabriele said the trustee's attorney said they are "getting close" to finalizing an agreement to submit to the bankruptcy judge to authorize necessary demolition and construction, and that the trustee "fully understands the risks as each day goes by and we get closer to the next round of rains."

"To the county, the most important issue is to address the deteriorating walls," Gabriele said. "It's our primary focus and it became more of a focus last March when our building and engineering officials identified that something needed to be done to protect against debris falling onto Highway 41. We received two court orders (so the county could take measures to ensure immediate safety) and got fencing up, portable barriers on the shoulder of the highway, and plastic tarping on the wall."

With the hire of Jay's Construction last week, Gabriele said he believes "there's going to be a lot of activity, hopefully soon," and that the county continues to press for a green light for construction to begin.

"There are a million things that have to happen, but I can tell you, everyone I've talked to knows the severity of the problem and wants to get it done," said Noel Shipp with Jay's Construction, who also spoke at the Oct. 25 meeting. "And the county has told us, 'You come in with something, and we will fast track it (to a top priority).'"

In November of 2008, the county filed a lawsuit against against the owners of 2T's Mini Storage -- Theresa and Terrence Travis, and Bashar and Atour Jarbos -- after county staff identified problems with the wall and the owners failed to take sufficient action to repair it, Gabriele said. The owners then turned around and sued the county for approving the project.

"We rely on licensed contractors to design and construct things," Gabriele said. "We inspect and evaluate, but we rely on their licenses ... We take the position that under state law, unfortunately, the reality is because there are so many plans and permits that we review, it is expected that there is going to be something missed, something erred, and as a consequence, the state legislation has created certain immunities (for government) because if those immunities didn't exist, then everyone would be suing and getting money from cities and counties."

A lawsuit alleging encroachment and trespassing is also pending against the owners, filed by Casey and Carolyn Root, who are are angry that a portion of the Coarsegold wall extends onto their property.

Possible sale of county water districts

During last week's meeting, Wheeler also talked about the possible sale of the county's special water districts to a private company. Wheeler said if a private company can improve the quality of water for some residents, than he would be in support of selling all of them.

Some in the audience voiced concern, stating they are happy with the quality of their water and "if it's not broke, don't fix it."

Wheeler said 28 of the county's special districts are in "really bad shape," with three-fourths of the residents of those districts unable to drink their water. Of the county's 34 sewer and water districts, 18 are in Eastern Madera County, said Ken Vang, county engineer.

A "utilities privatization committee" was formed Sept. 24 to further address the issue of a possible sale.

The committee will hold a public meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7 in the Resource Management Agency building's planning commission conference room, located at 2037 W. Cleveland Ave. Madera, where the residents can weigh in and make comments.

Under Proposition 218, the issue of privatization would only reach a public vote if a new private company proposed a rate higher than what the county currently charges, Vang said.

If the county decides to open up bids for the purchase or administration of the districts, interested contractors would likely have to make a $40,000 deposit that would pay for a county consultant, Vang said.

"My recommendation is you sell all or none (of the water districts)," Vang said. "If you don't do that, then private companies are going to cherry pick the really healthy ones and the really poor, disadvantaged communities, the county can be stuck with."

Vang said big companies like American Water Company usually have more funds available for improvements, while the county often has to wait seven years for grant money -- which often isn't awarded, he said. However, other studies show privatization doesn't result in cost savings or better water quality, he added.

"This is going to be a very controversial issue and the county is going to try and do the best things for the residents -- that's my goal," Vang said.

`Sheriff's Office news

Sheriff John Anderson also spoke at the meeting, announcing a new program called "Elder Orphans" that will likely launch next month, where seniors can register to have an automated system call them periodically to make sure they are OK. If a subscriber doesn't pick up after a preset number of telephone rings, the sheriff's office will conduct a welfare check.

"Conservatively, 15 times a year, I get a call like, 'I haven't seen Mrs. Jones dog recently, can you check on her?'" Anderson said. "People die and no one knows it, and I don't think that's right. We owe people some dignity."

The Elder Orphans program is made possible by a community grant from the Picayune Rancheria of the Chukchansi Indians, which also provided funds for a reverse 911 system, where residents can register landlines and cellular phones to receive emergency notifications.

Anderson also warned residents to be wary of auto thieves and burglars, as they "are not going away" in Eastern Madera County.

Other news

Wheeler also talked about the controversial State Rural Fire Fee, earmarked for "fire prevention."

"Make sure you pay, but protest it," Wheeler said."The majority of our programs are under fire prevention -- the fire safe council, thinning of state forests and private lands, and public education," said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Chris Christopherson. "Where the money goes (to the state's general fund or a special account) -- I don't know. That's way above me."

Wheeler also announced that on Oct. 16, Red Rock Environmental Group, part of the Fresno-based Caglia Environmental, was awarded a solid waste services contract with the county for some of its unincorporated regions, along with operation of the Fairmead Landfill and North Fork Transfer Station. Madera Disposal's contract will terminate Nov. 1.

Madera Disposal was being paid for years to sort through garbage for recyclables at the Fairmead Landfill and the North Fork Transfer Station, what they were found to not doing, and a lawsuit was filed, Wheeler said.

Wheeler also touched on a proposed bus system being pushed by Fresno Council of Governments from Fresno to Yosemite. He said if a bus is going to come through, he wants to make sure it stops in Eastern Madera County.

Although the 1980 Yosemite General Management Plan lists an eventual goal to remove all private vehicles from the park, Wheeler said the three park superintendents he's worked with since elected have said that will never happen. Yosemite's new alternatives for the Merced River Plan also removed all language of removing private vehicles from the park, he said. The finalized Merced River Plan will be submitted to the court for approval next year.

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