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Trial to begin on fate of Duroville shantytown

April 04, 2009|David Kelly

A federal judge will begin hearing evidence next week to decide whether to close the notorious desert shantytown known as Duroville and displace up to 4,000 poor farmworkers.

More than 20 witnesses, including tenants, social workers, federal officials and nuns, are slated to testify in the long-awaited trial, which begins Tuesday.

For more than a year, U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson has rebuffed demands by the U.S. attorney's office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to shutter the Coachella Valley trailer park, largely because of the residents.

He has criticized the government repeatedly for failing to offer any plans for where to put those needing housing if the park closed.

Last year, he appointed a receiver to take over the 40-acre facility and try to rehabilitate it. He also removed park owner Harvey Duro's decision-making authority and suspended his monthly $7,000 salary.

Duroville sits on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation. Duro, who is a member of the tribe, said recently that he also wants the park closed.

In pushing for the park to be rehabilitated, Larson made a list of benchmarks to be met, including renovation of shoddy infrastructure, measures to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire and limits on the number of trailers. He went out to inspect the park twice, a rare move for a federal judge.

"The bottom line about Judge Larson is that he has been very patient with all the parties involved to come up with a solution," said Chandra Gehri Spencer, a lawyer who is representing some of Duroville's tenants. "I don't believe he will issue an order that is not a solution. He won't leave everybody hanging."

Spencer and others who oppose closing Duroville say it would result in one of the largest mass evictions in state history and force desperate people searching for any sort of accommodation into even worse housing.

"That would be the worst thing to do because alternatives don't exist," Spencer said. "I think the judge has a substantial understanding of the social, economic and moral implications this would have on the community."

Jim Fletcher, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Southern California agency, sees it differently.

"I think the judge will close the park over the next six months to a year," he said. "I also think Riverside County will come up with a proposal for housing these people."

Duroville took shape in the late 1990s after the county began reining in hundreds of illegal trailer parks throughout the eastern Coachella Valley. Latino farmworkers along with thousands of Purepechas, a people indigenous to the Mexican state of Michoacan, towed their trailers onto Indian land not subject to county code enforcement. Dirty, overcrowded slums soon sprang up.

Duroville was the largest and most notorious -- with raw sewage in the streets, jerry-built electrical systems, poor water quality and a huge toxic waste dump next door. The government started legal proceedings against the park in 2003.

Larson could close Duroville immediately, shut it down in phases or keep it open with ongoing renovation and repairs.

In an order issued April 1, he acknowledged that significant improvements had been made, especially in reducing fire risk, but said there was no evidence that specific health and safety hazards noted in a November inspection report had been remedied.

According to Mark Adams, the park's federally appointed receiver, Larson has said the U.S. government would have to pay for the relocation of tenants if Duroville was closed. Based on past experience with government condemnation of apartment complexes, Adams calculated that cost at as much as $40,000 per housing unit -- or more than $10 million to cover Duroville's 267 trailers.

"I definitely do not get the sense that the judge is closing the place down," he said. "Everything he has done indicates that it is his preference that if he can figure a way to get Duroville rehabbed, he would take it over putting people out into the street."

But Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said the judge never told the government it would have to pay to relocate residents. "It simply didn't happen," he said. "Any claim that we would be responsible is undercut by the fact that Duroville is an illegal enterprise and should never have been there to begin with."

Adams said the park has undergone major changes over the last year. Sewage ponds have been dredged, fire hazards removed and unlicensed businesses closed. Park management and Catholic Church workers have organized block captains to notify them of problems and residents' concerns.

Adams, who has done receiverships throughout the state, said he expects to get $6 million in loans to upgrade trailers and renovate the park infrastructure, a task he said could be completed in 18 to 24 months.

"This is the biggest, most complicated thing I have ever done," he said. "If it closes, I would feel I had failed Judge Larson, who charged us with this task and believed if anyone could rehabilitate it we could. This story is not finished yet."

The trial, which has no jury, is expected to last about a week.

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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