[three_fourth]From a distance, a 10-acre property huddled between a county jail and state prison in the unincorporated area just outside of Otay Mesa looks like a peaceful RV park.
[one_half] [box type=”shadow this-matters”]The owner serves on a San Diego planning board, and has been warned and cited four times regarding use of his land. He collects rent from tenants who have no electricity or sewage disposal.[/box][/one_half]
However, past the palm trees and gated entrance, there are dozens of small dirt lots without electrical hookups or sewage service. Renters occupy most of the lots, while a few contain remnants of junked trailers, abandoned portable toilets and old furniture. Tenants said the average rent is about $370 a month.
The property belongs to Melvyn Ingalls, vice chairman of the Otay Mesa Planning Group, an elected body that advises the San Diego City Council and the city Planning Commission on land-use issues.
Documents indicate the only residential use the county allows on the unincorporated land is permitted farm employee housing. County officials have cited or warned Ingalls four times in the past three years about improper activity on the property.
After inewsource made multiple attempts to contact Ingalls about the land he is now using as an RV park, he said, “Hopefully I’m contributing to society, but not everybody sees it.”
In March, the county required Ingalls to bring the land into compliance, which would require removing all of the residents by Sept. 30 and the trailers and recreational vehicles by Oct. 28.
Residents face eviction
Outside of one RV crammed along the western edge of the property is 56-year-old Larry LeProux. He said a more than decade-long battle with cancer led him to the property in what he calls “the dirtbag corner of Otay Mesa.”
LeProux said he was homeless for four years after losing his job as a construction supervisor and his home in Ocean Beach. He also got divorced. When he found Ingalls’ property on Craigslist, LeProux considered it to be “the end of the road” — a place he could settle down for what remained of his life.
He said the $370 monthly rent for the property less than three miles north of the U.S. border with Mexico was all he could afford.
LeProux said roughly 21 tenants live on the property, all of whom were served eviction notices on June 10 citing the tenants for illegal use of the land under its current zoning regulations.
“We’re being evicted due to violations that the owners have been cited for on the property,” LeProux said. “We’ve only done what’s considered status quo here.”
Evelia and Paul Rucobo said Ingalls began renting to them in 1995, allowing them to use the land for horses, sheep, cows and bulls. They said Ingalls forced them to remove the animals from the property in early 2015, shortly before several more families moved in.
Many of the tenants who live there now said they moved to the property because of financial instability or as a way to get off the streets.
Water and trash removal are provided, although LeProux and other tenants don’t consider the water, piped above ground in PVC pipes, safe to drink because of its smell. Tenants have to provide their own electricity with generators or wind power and dispose of sewage.
“The tradition here is that the gray water is just ejected onto the ground and that’s it, it’s a bad health hazard,” LeProux said in reference to water used for bathing or household chores. “It’s not legal, but we really have no other option.”
LeProux’s neighbor, Nita Brown, lives in what she describes as a closet-sized trailer with her four dogs. Her lot didn’t exist until 2015 when, county records show, Ingalls illegally backfilled a cliff with more than 2,500 cubic yards of material, including trash, tires, concrete and asphalt.
The raised land, now rented out to multiple tenants, has sunk 18 inches in less than a year, LeProux said.
“I watched the whole thing,” LeProux said, describing what he said was “at least two football fields of sod” and other “organic materials” used to raise the land.
County launches investigation
The 60-day eviction notices renters received in June came after a county investigation of a complaint about the permit status of the RV park was filed in December 2012.
In August 2013, the county Code Compliance Division issued Ingalls an administrative warning listing seven code violations and required him to remove all structures from the property. The county said he also had to cease all operations on the site or get the necessary permit by the next month.
[one_half][box type=”shadow post-form”]
Oops! We could not locate your form.[/box][/one_half]In response, Ingalls submitted a pre-application for a major use permit, a process that takes one to three years to complete, according to the administrative warning issued to him.
County spokesman Michael Workman said he couldn’t comment directly on the open case but said generally the county’s job is to get people into compliance. Enforcement eases up, he said, when a violator seems likely to comply.
Ingalls continued to accept new tenants, including LeProux and Brown, after the warning.
The county issued him an administrative citation in November 2015. Within the next four months, Ingalls was ordered to stop work on the illegal grading and to clear the property of tenants and remaining structures by Oct. 28.
Tenants told inewsource they were unaware the property was unpermitted when they moved in.
inewsource made several attempts to speak to Ingalls in person and by phone.
After declining to comment, saying on three separate occasions he was “on the other line” and unable to speak, inewsource confronted him July 26 at a San Diego Community Planners Committee meeting.
“A lot of them are just barely over homelessness, and I thought I was really being helpful. They’re not paying high rent,” Ingalls said of his tenants.
“They were not permitted and nothing is permitted because I don’t have good access there,” Ingalls said about the PVC pipes supplying the tenants with water. He said he intends to get the permits he needs. “I will do it eventually, but the county says everybody has to go so I don’t have any choice.”
He said his son, Todd Ingalls, was responsible for the advertisements that brought in tenants.
Documents show this is not the first time Ingalls has been cited for land use violations.
San Diego took Ingalls to court over land use regulations in 2014, accusing him of allowing landscaping, towing and auto-wrecking businesses, a church, and inhabited mobile homes on a property in western Otay Mesa without permits or the correct zoning. A judgment in that case ordered Ingalls to discontinue those uses and required him to pay the city $27,000. Executive Assistant City Attorney Paul Cooper said the amount was paid.
In 1994, Ingalls was elected as one of the original members of the Otay Mesa Planning Group, a committee of property owners, residents and business representatives who make recommendations to the City Council and Planning Commission. The members are unpaid. He has won re-election to the planning group, and he was chosen for the vice chairmanship without challenge from fellow board members.
“I know he rents spaces in his wrecking yards. I assumed he was doing everything correctly,” Hixson said.
Arian Collins, a city spokesman, said it’s important to understand that community planning groups, with members who are elected at the community meetings, are advisory only.
As long as they’re following council policy, “the city is OK with the operations of the group,” Collins said.
Tenants wonder what’s next
Tenants have less than two months before they have to leave Ingalls’ property, and most do not know where they will end up.
Marc Whitham, an attorney who has represented tenants in eviction cases, said the residents may have the right to relocation expenses if they are willing to take their cases to court.
“The difficulty is going to be, what are the terms of their rental agreements? What does it say about recovering their costs and their fees?” Whitham said. “It’s not a clear path to recovering the money.”
Evelia and Paul Rucobo, whom Ingalls has filed eviction notices against before and let them stay, said they understand the owner has the right to do what he wants with the land.
“They kind of treat the people who live here like like they own the people,” Evelia Rucobo said. “I don’t care about the money. I just want time.”
LeProux, however, said San Diego offers nothing comparable in cost.
Several of the tenants living at the RV park are working with a lawyer to get reparations from Ingalls. Those who can’t afford legal help, including LeProux, are looking for other ways to get the money from Ingalls.
“The renters are really freaked out and very, very worried that they’re going to go from this situation, good or bad, to homelessness,” LeProux said.