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Judge plans inspection visit to Duroville

He wants to see for himself the conditions in the Thermal mobile home park that officials say should be closed.

December 11, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

After hearing numerous reports of substandard and squalid living conditions, a federal judge said Monday that he would visit Desert Mobile Home Park, or Duroville, next week to see whether it poses an imminent danger to the lives of its tenants.

"My concern is that there are real safety hazards that need to be addressed now," said U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson in Riverside. "I want to see for myself. I want to know what is being done to ensure the safety of the 3,000 to 6,000 people living there."

Larson will be accompanied Dec. 20 by a federal marshal and will hold a hearing in the 40-acre Thermal park, which is on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation in the Coachella Valley.

His comments came during a hearing to determine whether to close the troubled park.

The U.S. attorney's office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs brought the case, saying that park owner Harvey Duro, a Torres Martinez member, had failed to obey a 2004 court order to repair electric, sewage and plumbing systems inside the park.

Duro's attorney, Scott Zundel, argued that his client had never been given a list of repairs to make.

"We have said if they give a list, we will do it -- and if we can't afford it, we'll close the park," he said.

Duroville, which got its start in 1999, has been exempt from local and state housing codes because it is on sovereign Indian land. But during the hearing, Duro's attorney agreed to put aside that exemption.

"If they give us a code that they will live by, we will abide by it also," Zundel said. When the judge suggested Duro follow the California building code, Zundel agreed.

The densely packed park, home to thousands of mostly Latino farmworkers, has been the scene of several fires that officials said could have easily gotten out of control. In May, a fire burned six trailers and forced the evacuation of 120 families. A blaze Saturday destroyed a motor home in the park.

Federal inspectors also say trailers are too close together, the drinking water quality is poor, the electrical systems are jury-rigged, propane is not safely stored, and animal feces and insects pose a serious threat of disease.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Jonathan Klinck initially asked Larson to close the park within 90 days because he believed the dangers were so serious.

But the judge said he was reluctant to do that because of the effect on residents, many of whom cannot afford better accommodations. Tenants pay about $275 a month per trailer to live in the cramped, dun-colored park.

Larson gave Duro 30 days to come up with leases for several businesses operating inside Duroville and 60 days to provide tenant leases. Neither group of inhabitants has government-approved leases.

Both sides said they welcomed the judge's impending park visit.

"I think he will go out there and tell us what things need to be done," Zundel said.

Klinck said he suspected Larson would be surprised by what he found.

"The judge knows there are risks to health and safety, and that's why he is taking a trip to confirm it with his own eyes," he said.

"I don't know anywhere else in California where sewage is pumped into an open lake."

Duro, who sat quietly in the audience during the hearing, seemed resigned to whatever might happen.

"I guess I'll have to be ready," he said. "I'm not sure what else I can do."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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