RIVERSIDE — After seven years of litigation, a federal judge Thursday refused to close the Duroville mobile home park, saying it would result in a "major humanitarian crisis" for thousands of poor farmworkers with no place else to go.
"To close the park under current conditions would create one of the largest forced human migrations in the history of this state," said U.S. District Judge Stephen G. Larson. "Unlike another forced migration in this state's history -- the internment of [Japanese Americans] during World War II -- there is not even a Manzanar for these residents to go."
Larson then appointed Tom Flynn, manager of the Thermal park, as receiver for the next two years with orders to make major repairs and encourage residents to move to safer, affordable housing elsewhere.
"Relocation of park residents must proceed with all deliberate speed," he said.
The U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted the 40-acre park, located on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, shut down.
In closing arguments Thursday, Assistant U.S. Atty. Leon Weidman said leaking sewage, 800 feral dogs, piles of debris and fire hazards made Duroville a deadly threat to its roughly 5,000 tenants. The cost of bringing it into compliance, he said, would exceed $4.3 million, which park revenues could never cover.
"There is only one solution and that is to close the park down," he said.
Chandra Gehri Spencer, an attorney representing the tenants, said closure would drive thousands into even worse housing conditions. It would also result in the loss of an entire village of Purepechas, an indigenous people from Mexico, she said. There are about 2,000 Purepechas in Duroville.
"The stress of relocation would be profound," said Spencer, who mounted a vigorous and effective defense throughout the trial. "The county would have to absorb more than 4,000 people."
Larson agreed that the park was neither safe nor healthy, but criticized the government for offering no alternative housing plan and the Bureau of Indian Affairs for its attitude toward park owner Harvey Duro.
He said the bureau refused to grant Duro a lease, never told him how to bring the park into code compliance and adopted a "prosecutorial demeanor" that indicated a genuine animus toward him.
"They did little to offer Mr. Duro any assistance, even when it was helpful to the health and safety of the park residents," the judge said. "Of greater concern was the [bureau] superintendent's complete lack of understanding of the criteria necessary for the approval of a lease."
One of the government's primary complaints against Duro was his failure to get a bureau-approved lease for the 10-year-old park. The defense said he never had a fair chance.
Duro didn't get off lightly.
"Not only did Mr. Duro violate the law -- it was knowing and willful," Larson said. "It is clear from his demeanor and testimony that he ignored the regulations."
Last year, the judge removed Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez tribe, from any management role at the park and stopped his $7,000 monthly salary. Larson restored some of that Thursday, ordering that Duro receive $2,000 a month.
Ultimately, Larson's decision came down to the tenants.
Throughout the proceedings, he had practically begged someone to come forward with a plan to house park residents, many of whom earn less than $10,000 a year.
Plans for a new low-income trailer park in Riverside County came with questions about funding and whether illegal immigrants, who make up a large percentage of Duroville, were eligible.
Larson took the unusual step of personally inspecting the park. He did it once with a full entourage of U.S. Marshals and another time largely on his own.
"Duroville is not a business, it is a village that thousands of human beings call home," he said. "They are poor, undereducated, disenfranchised and, in many respects, exploited. . . . These very same people, based on the evidence at trial, are an honest, hardworking, proud, colorful and family-oriented community of people committed to educating their children and raising them to be productive and successful members of our society."
Reaction to the ruling was swift.
Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said the park wasn't closed but Larson had encouraged tenants to leave.
"He also said in no uncertain terms that it was Harvey Duro's fault," Mrozek said.
Bishop Gerald Barnes, head of the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino, hailed the decision for sparing "thousands of people already living on limited means the terrible burden of being homeless during a depressed economy."
Sister Gabriella Williams, a nun who works in the park, was beaming.
"It's so wonderful. I am just delighted," she said. "God keeps all the poor in his heart, and we should keep them in our hearts as well."