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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 3rd, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 21 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 16, Issue 21

Battling the city: A Lompoc resident fights with code compliance over what he sees as 'un-American' treatment of a homeowner

By DAVID MINSKY

View a slideshow of additional photos.

It’s 11 a.m. and Sterling Ranft steps out of a mobile home trailer in his yard and into the daylight, eyes squinting after waking up from a deep slumber. He stuffs a 700-page California Penal Code book into his armpit and cracks open a Miller Genuine Draft tall boy. He takes a swig, opens the book, and begins telling his story about how the city of Lompoc is trying to force him out of his own house. 

“I am just a damn nuisance,” Ranft said with a wry smile, as he scanned through the pages of the book.


HOUSE PROBLEMS
Forced out of his home for violating several of Lompoc’s building and municipal codes, Sterling Ranft lives in a mobile home trailer next to the house—which is also prohibited. Ranft is getting by, even without water, gas, or electricity.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Three months ago, police raided Ranft’s house at 219 North L St. in Lompoc. The cops acted on a tip of a suspected butane hash oil lab there. Not long after that, Lompoc Deputy Fire Marshall Dena Foose inspected the house, which is among the oldest in Lompoc. 

It was the beginning of Ranft’s current ordeal with the city. But his problems really began when he inherited the properties. Ranft is feeling the heat of relentless code enforcement practices. He’s accused of violating several municipal and building code violations. 

The Fifth Amendment of the Constitution is supposed to protect owners against government seizing their property. But being told what to do with that property is a different story entirely. 

With code enforcement being a daily occurrence in Santa Barbara County, some residents—who are either unable or unwilling to comply—are seeing how far the government can go to get people into alignment with municipal codes. Calling it “un-American,” Ranft believes he, or anybody, shouldn’t be told what to do with his property. Armed with stacks of codebooks, an attorney, and an eighth-grade education, Ranft is waging a legal battle to get the city to leave him alone.  

American Dream

Ranft could be the embodiment of the American Dream. With a long whispy beard and tattoos of upside-down crucifixes covering his tan body, Ranft’s appearance screams the type of audacity that irks authority figures, despite having a jolly demeanor that wins friends. From the looks of Ranft, he doesn’t seem a likely homeowner and landlord. But at 26 years old, Ranft became the unwitting recipient of the American Dream: a house and a family. 

Ranft lived at the property for at least two years before receiving both the 215 and 219 North L St. houses from his grandmother, Dolly Cole, when she died several months ago. Formerly known as the Dominy House, Ranft’s house at 219 North L is one of the oldest structures in Lompoc. City records, as well as local historian Karen Paaske, point to 1875 as the year the house was built, although Ranft contends it was built years earlier.


OLD LOMPOC
The house Sterling Ranft inherited from his grandparents is among Lompoc’s oldest. Formerly known as the Dominy House, local historians and city records indicate that it was built around 1875, although Ranft contends it was built several years earlier.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Coming off a string of hard luck in Las Vegas, Ranft moved in with his grandmother two years before she passed away. It was a tragic loss for Ranft, but he learned to live with it. After all, he had a place to live, lots of friends, and a steady girlfriend. Then on April 7, police officers bashed in his front door.

Ranft said he was sleeping on the couch at the time. He described the experience as surreal and comical at the same time.

“They tried really hard to bust the door down,” he said. “I swore they had just broke it to pieces, but I ended up opening it for them. I just walked up and was like ‘Stop! Stop!’ and I was like ‘Is this a dream?’”

But it wasn’t. Ranft said he and the house’s occupants (including his girlfriend and her baby) found themselves at the wrong end of several M-4 rifles getting screamed at by cops. He was eventually arrested and charged with several crimes, including manufacturing a controlled substance, possession of methamphetamine, and child endangerment, according to Sgt. Allen Chisholm of the Lompoc Police Department.

The electricity and gas to the house were cut off following the raid—and fire marshal’s inspection—due to the conditions Foose saw during her inspection, mainly, she said, because of electrical hazards and ignition sources. The water was also disconnected for supposed gray water violations. In the staff report to the city, Foose noted that the house was in a “dilapidated state” with a list of 18 problems. The problems included several broken windows, “unused” furniture, and a foundation supported by a jack—Ranft contends the jack wasn’t supporting anything and removed it right away. 

Foose declared the once-named Dominy House unsafe to occupy, which Ranft said forced him to reside in a trailer next to the house—incidentally, that’s another code violation.  

A fire, a death, and an estranged attorney

The raid may have brought trouble into Ranft’s life, but his problems really began with his inheritance, which included the fire department hounding Ranft for “voluntary” home inspections. It turns out that the house was a city target for years before Cole died because of the trailers on the property, but left her alone due to the condition of her health, according to Foose.


'WEED' ABATEMENT
Sterling Ranft proudly shows off his medical cannabis garden. He hopes the harvest and sales to dispensaries can help him raise the cash for his property cleanup.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Several notices were sent to the house, Foose said, but went unanswered. 

“Most people grant us access,” Foose said. “Inspection warrants are rare. We don’t have to go that extra step.”

After the inspection, things started to get weird for Ranft. Christian Attula, Ranft’s friend and one of the people arrested during the raid, lived in a mobile home trailer in Ranft’s backyard. Weeks later, Attula’s body was found inside the trailer. His death was ruled a suicide, according Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Kelly Hoover, although the circumstances at the time his body was found don’t add up for Ranft.

He remembers a woman who was staying at the property said she found Attula’s body with a rope around his neck and that “his feet were blue.” But when Ranft went in to look at the body, he saw Attula sitting upright in a loveseat wearing socks with no rope around his neck. 

In mid-May, the trailer in which Attula was residing caught on fire—remember, there’s not electricity or gas connected to the property. The fire is still under investigation, but Attula’s death isn’t. 

Then Ranft’s friends started to disappear one by one, and his girlfriend left him, presumably shaken by the raid. 

One of Ranft’s few advocates is a (semi) local attorney by the name of Gary Dunlap, who Ranft hired to help with his case. Dunlap is still licensed to practice law in California, although he lives in Las Vegas, according to Ranft, adding that he was run out of town following an incident more than a decade ago.

Dunlap’s name may ring a bell for some people. In 2002, Dunlap was arrested and was charged with witness tampering, conspiracy, perjury under oath, and preparing false documentary evidence. The charges stemmed from his involvement with one of his clients. The charges were eventually dropped, and Dunlap sued former County District Attorney Tom Sneddon for his arrest and prosecution, according to the Lompoc Record.  

The abatement 

Wanting his day in court, Ranft ultimately got to speak his mind at a July 7 Lompoc City Council meeting. During the raid, Ranft said the cops roughed him up and destroyed his property. 

“They served a very violent warrant,” he said during the meeting. “They kicked in doors and destroyed my home, my grandparents’ home. And they said that they did this to help the property?”

Dunlap represented Ranft at the meeting, where the council considered adopting an ordinance that would force an abatement—essentially a cleanup—of Ranft’s property. Dunlap managed to avoid that by convincing the council to grant his client a 60-day extension for cleanup.


HISTORICAL RELIC?
Sterling Ranft holds a door lock with the year he says proves the age of the house.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

With the potentially huge cost for repairs, Councilman Victor Vega asked whether cleanup was possible in 60 days. Dunlap didn’t return several messages left by the Sun regarding his client, but he said a few words at the meeting.

“My client may be premature in his optimism about the financing made available because of the nature of the property itself and the fact that it doesn’t have utilities,” Dunlap said at the meeting, while also acknowledging some grant programs that could help Ranft, although they would take time. “Cash money wise, it’s very questionable because of the state of the property now not being available for occupancy because of the no-water conditions.”

But Ranft has made some progress since the meeting. Foose took several pictures of Ranft’s yard on April 7, which were shown to the City Council. They depict a yard filled with debris, trailers, and what appears to be a general mess. Ranft said he’s hauled several tons of debris from the property he inherited, but there is still work to do.

It’s not hard to see why an inspector would declare the home unlivable. Graffiti covers nearly every square foot of the walls. There’s a metal pole in the living room connecting the ceiling and the floor. Ranft said it’s a stripper pole, but it’s rightfully his. 

“If I had 75 grand,” Ranft said, “I’d make this house immaculate.”

According to Lompoc Fire Chief Kurt Latipow, the house was cleared to have water, but it has yet to be turned on. Latipow wouldn’t say why, but Ranft said it’s because of a huge water bill (around $1,800) that he said came out of nowhere. In order for the house to get gas and electricity back, its fire hazards need to be cleared, Latipow said

If Ranft doesn’t fix the rest of the abatement list, the city could adopt an ordinance declaring the house a nuisance and forcing an abatement of the home, which means the city would fix the problems for Ranft and stick him with the bill. That requires a court hearing, but that’s exactly what Ranft wants. 

He said the city wants to take his house, but it can’t legally do it solely for code violations.  

The Thornburg house 

The worst that can happen to a homeowner if they defy city codes, according to Santa Maria Assistant City Attorney Philip Sinco, is that they can be kicked out of their home and forced to have their property sold—with a court order, of course. 

This could very well happen with Mark Burgess, the owner of a home at 1018 N. Thornburg St. in Santa Maria. His situation parallels Ranft’s—Burgess inherited his home from a deceased relative.


SETTING PRECEDENCE
The house at 1018 N. Thornburg St., photographed after a fire damaged the property on April 20, 2015.
FILE PHOTO BY DAVID MINSKY

In November 2014, the city of Santa Maria sued Burgess to improve the condition of his home, which has received a slew of code violations going back to 2009.

On Oct. 23, 2014, city code officer Celia Lennon reported that a set of jumper cables was supplying electricity to Burgess’ home from a neighbor’s house. The setup blew a transformer, Lennon said. Utilities to the house were disconnected. She told the Sun that the house’s situation was one of the worst cases of code violation she’s ever seen. 

Subsisting on Social Security, the 54-year-old Burgess told the Sun in December that he had virtually no money to fix the repairs and no where else to live. 

The house was “yellow-tagged,” essentially deemed unsafe to occupy, at which point Burgess began squatting in his own home. It became an alleged den for drug use, with neighbors reporting constant in-and-out activity by shady types. 

The house caught fire in April and the city declared it a nuisance shortly after. Basically, the house needs to be fixed. Sinco reached out to Burgess’ family to see if the city can get permission from Burgess to fix the property. Sinco hasn’t heard back yet, and time is running out.

If the family doesn’t want the property, then Sinco can proceed with getting a court-appointed receiver appointed to act as the property’s owner and restore the home’s condition. With the costs incurred from this process, the city can place a lien against the home’s value. When a home is sold, the lien takes what was spent on restoration from the proceeds and returns the money to the city. Burgess would receive whatever amount is left over. 

The home wouldn’t have a clear title if this happens because of the lien, Sinco said. But Sinco could also end up asking the court to sell the property without Burgess’ permission. And if it does get sold without permission, the court could still revoke the sale, Sinco said. 

“I do believe at this point in his life, with his challenges, that he is not capable of owning or managing a property,” Sinco said. 

It’s not clear if Burgess has a place to live. Sinco said he referred Burgess to the county’s Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health services. Interview requests through Sinco to speak with Burgess’ family were not returned. Burgess couldn’t be reached for comment either, but his name occasionally appears as an entry on county police arrest logs that include the word “transient”—homeless.

Sinco explained that it’s a highly complex and unusual case, adding that there’s no guidebook for this situation. At worst, the city could condemn the house and tear it down, but Sinco believes it’s still salvageable. 

Community standards

The reason why municipal codes exist is pretty simple. Other than for general appearances, it boils down to health and safety and protection of property value, according to Esequiel Moreno, senior code compliance officer for Santa Maria.

“The general importance of having codes is neighborhood preservation, and preservation of property value,” Moreno said. “We firmly believe that if we preserve the neighborhood, we preserve the family.”

Moreno added that codes are developed at the grass roots level, with many stemming from citizen complaints. 


IN REMEMBRANCE
One of Sterling Ranft’s prized possessions: a folded American flag given to his grandfather honoring his military service.
PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Other than being forced from their homes, California homeowners can face misdemeanor charges—but only in severe cases—and hefty fines: up to $1,000 per day per violation. 

That would be an extreme case, Moreno said, and it rarely happens. But when it does, it becomes controversial and confrontational. 

A few years back, a national movement known as Fight Against Code Enforcement Offices (F.A.C.E. Off) began pushing back. Websites of East and West Coast chapters popped up on the Web, giving an outlet to citizens fed up with the system. 

A San Bernardino man by the name of Bob Morris created his own F.A.C.E. Off website, iefaceoff.blogspot.com, to vent his frustrations at what he perceived to be exorbitant permit fees. The Sun tried to reach Morris through an email listed on the website, but the messages came back as undeliverable. 

Code compliance abuse happens, according to Michael Reiter, a Redlands-based attorney. Reiter is a former deputy city attorney for San Bernardino, where he prosecuted code violations for nearly five years. Now he’s on the other side: fighting for property owners. 

“Sometimes you can get rude officers who can go a little crazy and cite things that shouldn’t be cited,” he said.

Although Reiter agrees with Ranft that the government can’t seize property solely based on code violations, Reiter said it can dispossess owners of their houses. A house can be condemned by the city if it shows any signs of imminent collapse, Fire Chief Latipow said.

“What’s the real difference if you can’t live there anymore?” Reiter said. 

Codes and penalties vary from city to city, he said, depending on community standards. They’re even enforced beyond city boundaries. In 2014, Santa Barbara County collected more than $123,000 from code violation penalties and fines in unincorporated areas, according to the county’s planning and development Assistant Director Dianne Black. 

In fiscal year 2014-2015 (which ended on June 30), Santa Maria collected $46,416 in administrative penalties and citations. The Sun wasn’t able to get similar figures from Lompoc before press time. 

“It’s not a money issue,” Lompoc City Manager Patrick Wiemiller said, adding that citations aren’t a way for governments to collect revenue. “If we were to compare one community to another, the comparison would boil down to how cooperative is the citizen to the notice.” 

The route to cleanup

Ranft is in a bit of a conundrum. He lives in a trailer next to his home, which he isn’t legally allowed to occupy. Yet, having the trailer in the yard is also a code violation, according to Fire Chief Latipow. And it’s hard for Ranft to make progress on the cleanup process unless he has a place to live and the ability to take a hot shower. 


PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI

Latipow said that it’s possible to live in a trailer in Lompoc, but only within designated areas. 

“Normally we permit construction trailers, not necessarily within the city,” Latipow said. “If that’s a request he wants to make, there is a process.”

Like what his grandmother did for him, Ranft said he has a tendency to help people when no one else will, and he’s hoping someone will do the same for him. Ranft needs help cleaning up is property and wants to put the word out for a little assistance.

“It’s the only thing I’ve ever owned,” Ranft said.


Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at dminsky@santamariasun.com.




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