Digging in wash dredges up discontent

Digging in wash dredges up discontentCity gave owner of construction firm special favor by allowing him to harvest dirt, neighbors charge (PALM SPRINGS, Ca) — Like many of his neighbors, Michael Moret moved to Araby Cove for the quiet. So when the trucks arrived about a year ago, the retired Beverly Hills psychiatrist took notice.Every few minutes another would rumble down Araby Drive to the Palm Canyon Wash. There, a big, yellow loader would dump two scoops of brown soil into the double-trailer beds and off they’d go, on and on, day after day, morning to afternoon.The city told him it was legal. So did the contractor, G&M Construction, which said the county had given permission. But Moret kept asking questions anyway and early last month he discovered the truth: there was no permit, not from the city, the county or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.G&M Construction — which has more than $1 million in city contracts and is owned by the husband of a planning commissioner — was taking thousands of tons of dirt to sell as cheap fill for housing developments across Palm Springs.City officials say it was all a misunderstanding, that they thought it was approved by the county, that they didn’t know they had jurisdiction over that part of the wash, but Moret and some of his neighbors aren’t buying it. They believe the city purposely turned a blind eye so an insider could take advantage of the system.They’ve formed a neighborhood committee and are trying to get on a City Council agenda this month.”I would walk out there and I would look and they were already (moving) an enormous amount of dirt,” said Moret, 57. “And they were already down three or four feet below road level. And it just — a light bulb went off — something dawned on me. I said this cannot be right. This is not maintaining the wash. This is a strip mining operation. They’re running a quarry here.” George Marantz, owner of G&M Construction, denies any misconduct and said he was actually doing good by keeping debris from building up on the wash.”Everybody wins in this,” said Marantz, who’s married to Dianne Marantz, vice chairwoman of the city’s Planning Commission and a long-time supporter of former mayor Will Kleindienst. Marantz said he had permission to excavate the site and sell the dirt as fill, but the city shut down the operation Nov. 10 when officials learned he didn’t have a permit and also discovered it was responsible for regulating that land. City officials, however, are now stuck with a partially excavated water channel as the mid-winter rainy season nears. If the desert gets heavy rains, city and county officials say the heaping mounds of dirt piled in the center of the wash could contribute to flooding in surrounding homes or even wipe out a nearby bridge.Their solution? Give Marantz a permit to clean up the wash. Officials say he’s already dug down pretty far, so he’ll have to remove a few more thousand tons of dirt, which he can sell.Neighbors say no way.”He gets to haul away all his dirt. He gets to finish his job,” said Ron Jesser, 52, who’s building a home in Araby Cove with his partner. City officials say it’s the best solution because there isn’t enough in the budget to pay for someone to clean up the wash. The best they could offer as payment is the dirt, they say, and the only one who’s interested is Marantz.Marantz said he expects to receive the necessary permits around the first of the year.He’s miffed that the residents stopped his project — at one point saying the neighborhood’s gay population thinks it runs the city because of the results of the November election — but he’s apparently willing to concede on one of the neighbors’ biggest gripes: the caravan of trucks rumbling down Araby Drive. Neighbors say the large trucks have destroyed Araby; the concrete is cracked up and down the street between the wash and Palm Canyon Drive. Although city officials say they can’t prove G&M’s trucks caused the cracking, Marantz said he’ll look for an alternate route when the digging resumes.City, county and federal officials who regulate the Palm Canyon Wash don’t appear interested in pursuing charges against G&M — the worst the city could do is level a small fine. Their reluctance comes, in part, because there apparently was legitimate confusion over who regulates that particular piece of the wash. Numerous local and federal agencies have jurisdiction over different aspects of the wash. Moreover, the policies that differentiate the responsibilities of say Riverside County Flood Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are often so obtuse even those charged with regulating aren’t sure exactly who’s in charge.”It’s extremely complicated,” said Robert Smith, a project manager with the Corps. Things were further complicated with this particular piece of the wash — which butts up against Araby Drive just a few blocks south of Palm Canyon Drive — because the land is privately owned, meaning the city is ultimately responsible for permitting the excavation of the site. “That is rare,” said Assistant City Manager Troy Butzlaff.David Barakian, the city engineer, said he had no idea that parcel was privately owned.”We don’t keep records of what the flood control owns or what private property owns,” Barakian said. City officials assumed county flood control had jurisdiction after Moret began complaining about the noise and officials pressed Marantz for proof of a permit. In August, Marantz faxed the city three documents — a handwritten fax cover letter from county flood control, an example letter from Army Corps of Engineers and a letter from Marantz to the owner of that piece of wash — which he said gave him permission to be digging.City officials and Marantz, however, apparently did not read the hand-written letter. That letter instructs Marantz to write to the Army Corps for permission and to use the attached example letter as a guide. The third document, Marantz’s letter to the owner of that piece of the wash, is addressed to an Adele Norton, who owns a modernist home nearby but not the actual land itself. According to county assessor’s records, the land is owned by supermarket mogul Ronald Burkle.However, a spokesman for Burkle’s investment company, Yucaipa Cos., said the land was sold months ago. The spokesman, Frank Quintero, declined to say to whom the land was sold. He did say that no one was ever given permission to dig on the land, but said Burkle wouldn’t purse trespassing charges because “We don’t own the property.” All of this raises the question of why anyone, even a major developer, would care to take dirt. Valley contractors and so-called “dirt brokers” say the soil used as fill on construction sites is often the single most expensive element of any project. The cost of fill dirt is a function of two factors: demand and availability. The farther away a contractor has to truck in dirt, the more expensive it is. Dirt, particularly large quantities of it, is hard to come by in Palm Springs. “There isn’t a lot (of dirt) over there,” said Dave Lippert, an employee at Nuevo Engineering in Indio. Marantz denies he saved money by taking soil from the wash. He said he has no problems finding dirt.In fact, he said digging at the wash cost him more than $80,000 and made him less than $10,000.”I’ll tell you right now, we didn’t make a lot of money on it,” Marantz said. Moret suspects city officials knew all along that what Marantz was doing was wrong but did nothing about it to help the city contractor. Since 1994, G&M Construction has been awarded 23 city contracts worth more $1.3 million. Political observers widely consider Marantz a member of Palm Springs’ old guard. His wife, the planning commissioner, endorsed Kleindienst in the last election and G&M contributed $500 to his reelection campaign.But Marantz and city officials say his connections to Palm Springs city government didn’t help him skirt the law.”I don’t think that makes any sense. That question doesn’t deserve an answer.” Marantz said. “I’ve been in this town 40 years. I know a lot of people. But I’ve never seen a politician (play favorites).”Still, other contractor
s in the valley say they would never think of digging without a permit. “Doing something like that would be cutting your own throat,” Lippert said. Marantz expects to start digging again soon.

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