Selective code enforcement: Is it ‘God’s will?’
February 24, 2009
By DANIEL BLACKBURN First in a series
Dan De Vaul, meet The Apostle.
While county officials pursue a vigorous (some say pernicious) criminal prosecution against high-profile De Vaul and his South County Sunny Acres Ranch for the hapless, another, longer-running code enforcement drama is being played out 20 miles northwest at a commune called Roandoak of God.
Roandoak, however, has three allies that De Vaul lacks — the county, The Apostle, and, apparently, the Lord.
Roandoak of God, scattered on flat acreage on the outskirts of Morro Bay, was intended to be a haven for life’s rejects, “all those who need help,” in the words of its founder, Galeb Amhurst, the original Apostle. Amhurst said when he started his project in 1970 that “God’s work was unfolding.”
Also unfolding was what would become a 37-year, on-again, off-again campaign by San Luis Obispo County code enforcement officers to force Roandoak to comply with building codes — efforts which to date have met little success. A large, two-story building housing dozens of Roandoak residents is not now permitted, and never has been, according to county officials.
Now those permitting endeavors have encountered some resistance from the residence home’s current operator, Joseph Goodwin, who also calls himself “The Apostle.” County enforcers tread lightly around Goodwin, according to neighbors.
But that doesn’t work for Carrie Burton, who with her husband owns a small ranch adjacent to the Roandoak facility. She has witnessed for years, she said recently, the impotent attempts by county officials to bring Roandoak into compliance with regulations, and she fears that complete capitulation by frustrated code enforcement officials is imminent. And recent comments by some of those county officers appear to lend credence to Burton’s suspicions.
“The only difference between what is happening at Dan De Vaul’s place and here,” said Burton as she gazed from her kitchen window at the hodge-podge building complex next door jammed against her property, “is that this claims to be a ‘religious’ place.”
“Roandoak is an admittedly illegal, non-permitted land use with thirty-plus years of expired permits and non-met conditions,” she wrote in an e-mail to County Supervisor Jim Patterson. “The county’s own building code says [Roandoak] should be deemed a new project, with today’s codes, standards and permits.” She said the county is presently insisting that Roandoak is “a single-family residence with a single kitchen.”
Not true, said Burton: “It is an illegal, two-story dormitory with more than 30 people using inadequate sewage facilities (and with) known electrical and foundation problems, little heat, and an illegal kitchen.”
County records and newspaper reports show that Roandoak properties have been scheduled for demolition on numerous occasions over the past four decades, but no such action involving the two-story building has occurred. For at least seven years, the county district attorney was involved, but that interest apparently ended in 1979.
Burton noted she turned to Patterson after receiving what she calls “no help” from the supervisor in whose district she and Roandoak reside, Chairman Bruce Gibson.
Roandoak charges its residents $500 to $600 a month, according to its Web site. The group also maintains two Morro Bay houses in residential areas, each providing for about 10 tenants at similar monthly assessments.
Roandoak’s current building permit problems mirror a long history of similar conflicts with the county. A 1972 headline from the Sun-Bulletin heralded, “Religious commune given month to clean up land.” For more than a year, controversy intensified in the Morro Bay community about Roandoak, its owners, its religious claims, and its fight with county officials.
The property’s use became a subject of gossip almost from its inception as a refuge for life’s unfortunate. After proclaiming himself a minister, Amhurst and his wife, Rachel, dedicated their home and rural property on Chorro Creek Road to serve what they called “the losers of our society: the drug addicts alcoholics, ex-convicts, emotionally and mentally troubled, unemployed, homeless, down-and-out, misfits, and rejects.”
When county enforcement officials first responded to the property in August 1972 to investigate neighbors’ complaints, they found “members of the commune sleeping in tents, campers, a barn, and old parakeet shacks.”
A stop order was issued to Amhurst, requiring him to get a conditional use permit (CUP) before proceeding with construction of the two-story building.
“We’re not worried about getting the permit, because God will do whatever is right,” he told a reporter then. God works in mysterious ways, because supervisors first denied the permit, then approved it. But the permit was never acted upon. In the meantime, the complex has grown, and Goodwin and his family have fashioned residences on the property — none built with permits.
So the Burtons have non-permitted residential structures on two sides of their small acreage. She said that when they purchased the property, they were told the adjacent buildings were illegal and would be torn down.
Harley Voss, the county’s chief enforcement inspector, suggested in a recent e-mail to Burton that Roandoak will be declared legal, non-conforming, a status that would ease pressures on Roandoak’s existing buildings.
Voss wrote that under existing California law, the county’s options are limited.
Citing a portion of the state’s building code, Voss wrote that “any structure existing on the date of the adoption of this code shall be permitted to continue without change.” If alterations to the structure are not made, owners “are not required to comply with code requirements for a new structure.”
Burton and her neighbors are not just unhappy with alleged code violations. She worries about Roandoak residents who stand by the property border and snap photographs of her children as part of a campaign of what she calls “ongoing intimidation.” And she is concerned that the area’s well water supply has been polluted by leakage from faulty and non-permitted septic systems used by Roandoak.
That concern was justified in a December 2008 letter from the California Department of Public Health, noting that the quality of water coming from the six wells surrounding the Chorro Creek Road properties rendered it unfit for human consumption.
The DPH has ordered Morro Bay city officials to shut down all but one of the wells and keep them closed until a feasible method of purification can be found.
Voss said the main difference between Roandoak’s owners and De Vaul “is that one property owner is cooperative and the other is not. The commonality is that adjoining property owners are unhappy with uses by the two groups.”
Voss, who has been assigned to the Roandoak matter for only about three months, likened the Roandoak situation to that of “a frat house.”
Goodwin, said Voss, purports to have a commune-type of house where everyone pays a portion of the rent and support one another, so it qualifies as a single-family residence. Roandoak is not, as far as we can determine, a rehab type of facility.”
He said that a county permit for the dormitory was granted in 1972, but it expired, as did two other building permits issued by the county since then.
“And that’s where we sit today. I know there are some concerns about Roandoak. But did Roandoak pollute those wells? I don’t know. If anyone can draw a line that shows that… but I don’t know anyone who can.”
Goodwin is working “with our building department to reactivate the permits” [for the dormitory], said Voss.
The county official was asked by a reporter if it seems odd that for nearly 40 years, the Roandoak structure has been allowed to exist without county sanction?
“Yes, it does. It seems to me like this should be a very simple process, and it probably needed a little more baby sitting in the past,” Voss said. “Our planning permit process has evolved a lot in the past nine years. I’d like to believe that when the building permit [for Roandoak’s dorm] is applied for, it will have a relatively short shelf life.”
Voss paused. “But should this have taken 40 years? I think not.”
In the meantime, Burton is reported to have testified before the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury on the issue, although she declined comment on any participation with that panel. She also has been subpoenaed to testify as early as this week for the defense in De Vaul’s nuisance abatement trial.
NEXT: Getting to know Joseph Goodwin, The Apostle of Roandoak