A federal judge in Riverside said Monday that he was prepared to close a sprawling trailer park in Thermal within two weeks unless its owner presented a detailed plan to repair water, electricity and building code violations at the property that is home to 6,000 tenants.
"If I get the feeling that this is not going to happen, I'm going to close the place down. I'll send out federal marshals, and that will be it," said U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson, who toured the park known as Duroville last month. "The gamesmanship is over. The shell game is over."
Larson postponed a decision until Jan. 28. But he said that what he saw during his visit convinced him that the place represented an imminent threat to residents.
"I have great concern for the health and safety of the individuals at that park," he said. "Something has to be done."
The U.S. attorney's office asked Larson to close the park after reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs identified numerous hazards such as jerry-built electrical systems, poor water quality, raw sewage on the ground and trailers sitting too close together.
The park is on the Torres Martinez Indian reservation. Its owner, Harvey Duro, is a member of the tribe and sits on the tribal council.
Over the years, Duro has been ordered to make substantial repairs, but the government says he has never complied. When a fire last May destroyed six trailers, the bureau ordered an investigation. It turned up dozens of serious deficiencies at the 40-acre park. Duro has said repeatedly that he will make repairs if told what to do and given enough time. The bureau contends it has told him what to do but that he has failed to act.
On Monday, Larson expressed serious concern about what would happen to the tenants, nearly all low-income Latino farmworkers, should the park be closed. Assistant U.S. Atty. Leon Weidman said his office has met with Riverside County officials to discuss such a possibility, but so far they have found no alternative housing for residents. The cost would be high, and affordable housing is in critically short supply, he said.
"It's unfair for the farmers and the local government to put this burden on the United States," Weidman told Larson. "It cannot be the United States' problem to allow this slum park to continue to exist with the liability being on the United States."
Larson agreed but said that unless someone found a way to house the residents, the problem would continue. He invited members of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors as well as Catholic Charities and other groups to attend the next hearing and offer ideas. He also ordered Duro to submit a plan explaining how he intended to bring his park up to code.
"Everyone is well-represented in this case," Larson said, "except the individuals in the trailer park."