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A Week Without Water: The Plight of the People of Shadow Hills

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Shadow Hills residents Kurtis, left, and Kamini
King, Maria Mejia, Bill McChesney, Mike Graf and Rudy Madrid have all
been battling neighboring property owner Patrick Wizmann over water.
(Evan Yee/Staff Photographer)

Editor’s Note: What good’s a city if it can’t help its people? An email campaign last weekend about the plight of these residents of a Shadow Hills enclave in the rural Northeast Valley aroused dozens of people to plead for help from Councilwoman Wendy Greuel. The DWP had shut off Maria Mejia’s water at the request of developer Patrick Wizmann whose property surrounds the enclave and where therir water meters are located. After high-level discussions involving DWP General Manager David Nahai, city officials decided they were powerless to help, deciding it is a civil matter. I got the information to the Daily News and here is the story published today.

By Dana Bartholomew
Daily News

Patricia Ruffolo had taken a long, hot shower before filling her dog’s water dish and heading out to visit her mom.

But
when she returned to her rental home last Saturday, at the dawn of the
springtime hot spell, she found her water had been shut off — the
latest volley in a bitter and long-running property dispute with a
neighbor.

“It’s been hell — (and) hot as hell, and un-American,” said
Ruffolo, 53, of Shadow Hills, who with her English pointer endured
triple-digit temperatures this week under a dry spigot. “No one should
go without water.”

Ruffolo and several other residents of this rustic
equestrian community have periodically had their water flow reduced or
shut off because of a neighborhood feud that’s straight out of the Wild
West.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County health officials ordered water be restored immediately to Ruffolo and her landlady.

“You
can’t live without water,” said Kenneth Murray, a top official with the
Department of Public Health. “You’ve got to flush the toilets and
stuff.”

On one side of the dispute are a half-dozen neighbors who
have filed numerous lawsuits against Patrick Wizmann, owner of
California Home Development.

The decade of complaints and lawsuits against Wizmann range
from harassment to failure to prepare an environmental impact report
for his project.

On the other side of the dispute is Wizmann, whose plans to build 21 homes on 17 acres were blocked by the neighbors’  suits. On his property lie water meters belonging
to Ruffalo and two of her neighbors, and the leaky underground pipes
connecting them.

For
his part, Wizmann has sued homeowners for improper fence boundaries and
said that vandals once painted so many swastikas on his home he decided
to raze it.

“In 10 years, I’ve never seen a case like this,” said Dale
Thrush, planning director for City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, whose
district includes Shadow Hills. “It’s an unfortunate situation.”

Caught in the crossfire are Maria Mejia, a homeowner, and
Ruffolo, her guesthouse tenant. Their water was turned off by the
Department of Water and Power after Wizmann claimed their 55-year-old
pipes were leaking at a rate of tens of thousands of gallons per day
and damaging his property

Homeowners counter that Wizmann may have broken their pipes with a bulldozer, resulting in water bills of $1,000 a month.

Residents
and DWP officials have offered to repair the pipes, but say Wizmann has
refused to allow them onto his property. While homeowners have a
utility easement to their meters, neither they nor the DWP have legal
access to the water pipes running beneath Wizmann’s land, officials
said.

Also affected is Rudy Madrid, who said Wizmann personally
shut off his water for several days leading up to last weekend’s heat
wave.

“He’s turned off my water a bunch of times,” said Madrid,
75, a retired laborer who for 30 years has lived in a one-bedroom home
now landlocked by Wizmann’s horseshoe-shaped property. “I can’t even
take a shower or go to the bathroom.

“The city has been here and won’t do anything about it. He takes advantage of us.”

Wizmann,
a native of Morocco who lives in Hollywood Hills, insisted he’s never
touched Madrid’s water valve. He added that the ongoing dispute has its
roots in neighbors’ efforts to block his $16 million development.

Had the 21-home project been built, he said, the
neighborhood would now be serviced by new streets, city water and sewer
lines and would share the benefits of equestrian homes, corals and
public horse trails.

He described Mejia’s property as a “squatter’s place” built
in the 1930s and ’40s, without legal water hookups to meters on his
land.

He said he cannot grant homeowners permission to repair
their pipes because there was never any easement — that the pipes
lacked permits and are, therefore, illegal.

“I (won’t) become an accessory to breaking the law,” Wizmann said. “Her house is illegal.

“The
subdivision would have cured all of this stuff. … Ms. Mejia cut her
own throat. Ms. Mejia does not have an easement for water. That place
is so screwed, she couldn’t get a permit if the pope were her father.
It’s a cesspool of problems.”

Mejia, without a water hook-up since Dec. 1, had relied on
a tie-in to her tenant. But with Ruffolo’s water turned off after her
galvanized pipe also sprung a leak, both have been without water since
last Saturday.

Since then, Mejia and Ruffolo have depended on buckets of water brought up by neighbors.

“We
can’t live like this,” said Mejia, a 47-year-old environmental attorney
whose hilltop home is surrounded by Wizmann’s property and who won a
lawsuit blocking his development. “I need my regular water connection,
like an ordinary U.S. citizen and human being.”

Last Monday, DWP General Manager David Nahai met with staff
to resolve the issue at the request of Greuel, but found no solution to
the impasse.

Since the DWP has no jurisdiction over water lines between
its meters and residents’ homes, officials said the only cause of
action would be a civil suit seeking a water pipe maintenance easement.

“Unfortunately, this matter is the result of a property
dispute between two adjacent property owners,” the agency said in a
statement. “We have advised the affected party of the appropriate
action to take in order to resolve this dispute with her neighbor.”

The Shadow Hills neighborhood in the 9900 block of
Wheatland Avenue is a collection of ranch-style homes, white horse
fences and flowing pepper trees.

In 1998, Wizmann bought 17 acres and obtained permits to
build 21 homes. Neighbors sued him and the city, alleging violations of
the state’s Environmental Quality Act. In 2005, an appellate court
overturned the lower court ruling that had granted Wizmann permission
to build his homes.

Neighbors previously had filed a public nuisance lawsuit
after Wizmann felled hundreds of mulberry, pine and eucalyptus trees,
creating a grass-covered field.

Their suit alleged systematic harassment of neighbors
during his nearly daily patrols of his land. That he stalked them.
Filmed them. Spied on them. Threatened them. Detained workers and
guests. And bulldozed their mailboxes located on his land.

Both sides, who together have spent an estimated $250,000
or more on attorneys, say mutual settlement agreements have been
broken.

“This is like the Wild West out here, like an old Gary
Cooper movie, where the guys shut off the water upstream,” said Bill
McChesney, 65, a neighbor, litigant and former developer. “It’s
terrible. People shouldn’t have to live like this — we’re Americans.

“A person’s home should be his castle, but here it’s a prison.”

Wizmann,
who said he’s abandoned plans to build, denied any harassment and
accused his neighbors of violating city land and building codes with
impunity.

“Everything I do, I do by the book,” said Wizmann, 45. “I
pay top dollar for my lawyers … Everything I have done, it’s been
with the input of the community.”

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6 Responses to A Week Without Water: The Plight of the People of Shadow Hills

  1. Sandy Sand says:

    Excellent story, proving once again how slowly the wheels turn at City Hall, except when “they” want them to move with lightening speed, openly or in secret, and blanketed in lies.
    It also reminds me of a certain person who has a problem with an illegal conversion on his street that’s dragged on for more than a year.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Am I being stupid or is this really a city problem? It seems to me that each neighborhood should have their own water meters, and the people involved should pay for the division. When water is available, that means “improved property” and if it had been accomplished at the time of division, everyone would have paid more for their property. It is not fair for the tax-payers who have paid for improved property to have to pay to fix the problem originally created by the owners of that property. I have read about this neighborhood several times now, and I am having a real problem feeling sorry for them. They should pay to fix it and get it done fast. Now is a good time when everyone is looking for work. Those are my thoughts, anyhow.

  3. in Eagle Rock says:

    It seems to me not totally unforseeable that Mr. Wizmann’s act of turning off the water in high heat conditions might be responsible criminally for any death or destruction that occurs while he’s shut off the water. From a civil standpoint, he’d have a causal connection to such harm, intervening to create or increase the risks of harm, but that’s only a money item, and some people don’t pay attention to what they should do until they get jail time behind them.
    You can see he’s doing the whole thing to retalliate for stopping his development, but the guy’s a pig for going out of his way to try to hurt other human beings. If there were a fire that could have been put out with simple garden hoses before it got bigger, you could probably put blame on him, too. The guy is being just an nasty as he can. It looks like he’s gone out of his way to be a problem for the neighbors.
    The water meters and routing of the lines seems like a situation that would require simple courtesy and decency, but Mr. Wizmann appears devoid of that quality; money seems his sole motivator. Does he have a family? Do they join in with his actions? What a prize catch he was. A role model he is not.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I was involved in a four year neighbor dispute that cost me close to a hundred grand. Whether the owner has an easement for the water lines themselves, they should be filing an immediate Temporary Restraining Order or Injunction, (I am not an attorney), that will get them in front of a judge rapidly. And the water line should be considered “grandfathered”
    At the time of my lawsuit, for boundary issues, the California law favored the land owners as a rule. But if there is something like a water line, a judge would usually rule on an “Equitable easement” decision – they would be able to keep their lines and meters, but probably have to pay some type of fee for the usage of the part of the property that the water line is on. They probably could get the easement.
    I remember at the time, Hirschfield v Schwartz was the big case for Equitable Easement.
    This should not be done without an attorney – and I mean a good property attorney.
    And one thing that I did learn – if you are sued, your insurance company may kick in. The problem is, the insurance company attorney does not represent YOUR interests, they represent the insurance company’s interests.
    Never sign an arbitration agreement – if you do, there is no recourse. You cannot go back to court later if you find an error in what you sign.
    If there is an existing violation of an agreement, yes, you can take it back to court as a violation.
    One trick that mediators play is to have you at a meeting for up to 12 hours in a row, where your head is swimming, you can’t think, and you sign. You later realize your mistake, but it is too late.
    Never agree to mediation that will go beyond 4 hours in a day – or after 6:00 PM at night. Any meeting like that is designed to wear you down, not to serve justice.

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