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Building Code Red

[whitespace] John Vogel
Christopher Gardner

Buyer's Remorse: Hollister homeowner John Vogel launched a crusade against builders and bureaucrats after he noticed creeping cracks in the stucco and driveway of his brand-new home.

The Hollister building boom means they're slapping houses together faster than hotcakes. As the affordable dream homes fall apart, a growth-intoxicated, small-town government and media try to wish the problem away.

By Michael Learmonth

JOHN J. VOGEL LOOKS more like he belongs in the Hollister of Brando and Hopper than in the new Hollister, a town swelling with new truck dealerships, tilt-ups and tract homes. But there he is, with his wispy reddish hair, choppy sideburns and a smoldering Salem, standing on the porch of a two-bedroom on a cul-de-sac at the end of a street called El Camino de Vida.

He stands in the doorway, careful not to let any smoke in the house, underneath a sign that says "Mayor of El Camino de Vida." Just a nickname the neighbors gave him, he says. J.J. Vogel landed in the brand-new house on the brand-new street three years ago when he decided to settle in Hollister after a lifetime on the road, working as a freelance airline mechanic and living as a high-roller on the custom motorcycle circuit, building prize-winning custom Harley-Davidsons.

One of the Harleys in his garage has black fenders with sparkling painted spider webs on them. Dubbed "Mistress of the Dark," the chromed, tasseled bike's claim to fame is that it served as a prop for Elvira for a movie that was never produced. Another one of his bikes took first place at a competition at Trump Castle in Atlantic City, where it was used in a beauty pageant and calendar shoot. After the pageant, Vogel had the honor of a dance with Donald Trump's then-wife-to-be, Marla Maples.

"I used to ride my motorcycles and I could care less," Vogel says of his old life. But then Vogel changed. He took a steady job as a mechanic for Santa Clara County and decided to head for the land of opportunity where so many Silicon Valley civil servants and blue-collar workers had gone before. He and his wife poured their life's savings--$203,000--into their first home, a brand-new two-bedroom one-story in Hollister. The Harley and a half-built three-wheeler went in the garage and a white Pontiac minivan was parked out front.

"I came here figurin' this is where I'm going to stay the rest of my life," Vogel says. "I got my paycheck. I got my motorcycle in the garage. I was a fat, happy sheep like everybody else."

But that was before Vogel's house, and his life as he knew it, began to fall apart.

'I WAS SO EXCITED," he says, "but I went from excited to pissed." The first thing Vogel noticed was that after just a few months, the veneer on the front door of his new house had begun to peel. And when he pulled the heavy front door shut, it seemed as though the entire front of his house shuddered, like in an earthquake. Then cracks started sprawling across the driveway. When he inspected it closely, he noticed pitting on the surface and a gap beneath it deep enough to stick his hand into.

Vogel called his builder, Ron Culler, and after weeks of complaints and negotiation, he got Culler to replace the front door and the driveway.

But he says this was just the beginning of his problems. On the outside corners of his house, he noticed the stucco was so thin it didn't fully cover the edge wire--a clear violation of the county building code. The stucco on the south side of his house started developing cracks--dozens of them. When he looked at the wall closely and held a straight edge up to it, he found the wall curved out of plumb by as much as four inches.

When he notified Culler about the cracks, Culler sent a contractor out to repair them with caulk. When he told the contractor about the curvature in the wall, the man reassured Vogel that since it was the side of the house, no one would see it.

"I said, 'This is a new home. This isn't like buying a used car!' " Vogel says.

In his former life, Vogel says he voted "only occasionally." In hindsight he figures he was probably a Republican whose opinions didn't stray too far from calling President Clinton a liar.

But Vogel started going to meetings of the Hollister City Council to talk about the problems with his house. He printed up a flier and posted it asking anyone with construction problems similar to his to give him a call.

Over the next few months more than 300 phone calls flooded his voicemail.

He started meeting other neighbors who were living with construction defects even worse than his. He launched a website to keep track of the complaints at www.jps.net/hollister1, and started an organization, Advocates for Quality Home Construction. Then he made up T-shirts and signs for his minivan: "Hollister, home of the new fixer-upper homes."

He started standing out on the main highway into town among the signs advertising new homes by Anderson, Kaufman and Broad and Shea, holding up a 6-foot version of his own sign. Sometimes he was joined by a dozen or so neighbors, next to the strawberry fields on Highway 25.

Sometimes passing cars honked with approval. Once he made the mistake of standing out there alone. A car veered out of the oncoming lane, swiped his parked van and sent Vogel diving into a drainage ditch. It happened so fast, he says, he didn't have time to get a tag number.

"They were just trying to scare me," Vogel says, almost a year later.

Building Boomerang: To keep pace with Silicon Valley demands, hundreds of new homes have been built in Hollister in recent years. A San Benito grand jury report concluded that in some cases overworked city inspectors were devoting only 15 minutes to final inspections.

ALTHOUGH VOGEL had started to make some enemies, he also got the attention of the Planning and Growth Committee of the San Benito County grand jury, which opened an investigation into the city's building code enforcement practices.

In March, after a seven-month investigation, the grand jury issued an unusually scathing report that commended Vogel, "the homeowner who has led the effort to draw attention to the city's problems."

The report blamed the city for allowing a home-building boom over the last three years that the city was ill-equipped to handle.

"In some cases," the report states, "schedules show that inspectors budgeted only 15 minutes to perform an entire final inspection of a house--a routine that includes inspecting gas, finish plumbing, building electrical service, finish electrical, final mechanical, street trees and the completed building."

The time normally allotted for new home inspections in Hollister is 30 minutes. The jury also found that Hollister's inspection staff lagged behind other local cities experiencing growth, such as Salinas, Morgan Hill, Santa Cruz and Gilroy.

The city of Hollister is preparing a response to the jury report, the details of which city manager George Lewis refuses to disclose.

"We feel that our department does an excellent job of policing builders as far as code," he says.

Lewis says Hollister is unique in that it is the closest unconnected community to Silicon Valley. Whereas Morgan Hill and Gilroy have long since become bedroom communities for Silicon Valley workers, Hollister is only just beginning to become so.

The first waves of Silicon Valley's economically dispossessed buying homes in Hollister are civil servants and blue-collar workers.

"We probably have more firefighters and police living in the community than any other community in the Bay Area," Lewis says.

Since Silicon Valley's firefighters, police and civil service workers make more than Hollister's, the influx has already made new houses unaffordable for people who make their living there.

J.J. VOGEL BOUGHT HIS PLACE for less than a quarter million three years ago. Now he'd be lucky to find the same place for less than $300,000.

"People who buy here are making money in higher-income areas in Silicon Valley," Lewis says.

San Benito County became the second-fastest-growing county in California last year. Because each new house is a burden on infrastructure--schools, roads, sewage disposal, water systems--the city of Hollister has passed ordinances to try stemming the growth.

"We lose money on each new house," Lewis says. "We cannot keep going in the red."

As of Jan. 1, Hollister's population was 28,400. Under the city's growth- management plan, 3,000 new-home building permits will be allowed over the next 10 years. Already 1,400 of those have been approved. Lewis expects Hollister's population to swell to 38,000 by 2010.

Part of the strain on the city's inspectors is that in the past, builders have been allowed to "bank" their building permits to use when the market for new houses heats up. Because of banking, 472 new homes were built in Hollister in 1997; in 1998, 465 new permits were issued. Normal new-home construction in Hollister is 300 units a year.

The boom created the opportunity for developers to cut corners.

"I've never seen such poor workmanship in my life," says John Neece, president of the Building and Trades Council, a union that represents people working in the trades in Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

"Most of these homes are built on the lowest bid possible," Neece says. "We try to tell people this happens and they don't believe it. I hope there's going to be some kind of restitution for those homeowners."

"Trial lawyers are going to play a big role in this," predicts Michael Van Every, president of the Home Builders Association. Van Every says the volume of complaints coming from Hollister is, in his experience, "unique to a detached product."

One trial lawyer, Kenneth Kasdan, is representing 167 homeowners suing four major home builders doing business in Hollister: Anderson Homes, California Homes, Rancho Santa Ana Partners and SunRise Partners. Kasdan is also pursuing a myriad of subcontractors, concrete suppliers, roofers, framers, window manufacturers and design professionals who he claims did sub-code work.

"They were grossly negligent in how they supervised the projects," Kasdan says. "We are simply asking for the cost of repair, to make the house what it should have been: a good-quality house free of defects."

Kasdan estimates the cost of repair at about $300,000 per home, so he will be seeking in excess of $50 million from the developers, builders and contractors.

Officials at Anderson Homes, California Homes and SunRise Partners declined to comment for this story.

J.J. VOGEL HAS NOT yet signed on to the suit and he's keeping his plans private. Of course he would like to be remunerated for the expense of what will ultimately be a rebuilding of his house, but as soon as he signs on the dotted line, he says, he'll have to take down his signs, stop calling the newspapers and stop speaking out.

"I could have gotten on a suit and gotten my money, but I want to see everything made right, more so than getting my own house fixed," Vogel says.

Until recently, Vogel had the support of the local weekly paper, The Pinnacle, and especially Bob Valenzuela, a bearded columnist for the paper who writes a weekly gossip column called "Thoughts While Not Shaving."

"If it weren't for J.J. Vogel, none of this would be going on," he says. "Too bad most people don't have a tenth the guts he has. But if I owned a home and it was falling apart and I invested my entire life trying to buy it, I'd be exactly like J.J."

While Valenzuela continues to dispatch his opinion, the rest of The Pinnacle has fallen silent on the biggest story in town. Last month the paper received a letter from attorneys representing Anderson Homes demanding to know the source for a fact reported in a story by Pinnacle reporter Linda Lee King. The Pinnacle responded by publishing a front-page retraction of the story and firing the editor the very next day.

"I spent 35 years in newspapering," says Marvin Snow, 57, former editor of The Pinnacle. "Now I'm on unemployment."

Before the threat of a lawsuit, Snow says, representatives of Anderson Homes had not once returned a call he'd placed asking for their side of the story.

"Marv was stepping on all kinds of toes," Valenzuela says. "He just stepped on the wrong one that time."

As the city prepares its response to the grand jury report and the investigations continue, rumors swirl that indictments could be in the offing and that Dateline's cameras are on the way.

One complication: Any indictments prosecuted by the local district attorney would have to go through Hollister Mayor Richard Boomer, who also happens to be the lead investigator for the San Benito County DA.

"The appearance of impropriety is just that," Boomer argues. But to avoid the conflict of interest, District Attorney Harry Damkar sent a package to the state Department of Justice for review. Should the grand jury issue indictments, both agencies would have authority to prosecute.

Nevertheless, Valenzuela predicts, "the DA will never investigate Hollister."

That won't stop J.J. Vogel from raising hell. Now that he's seen injustice, he can't stop trying, as he says, "to make things right." If he can stand to cut his hair, he's even thinking about making a run for the California Assembly.

"I'm not a talker; my vocabulary's not that great," he says. "Two years of this, most people would just walk away. But this is the biggest investment of any person's life. If you can't trust them with this, what the hell can you trust them with?"

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From the May 27-June 2, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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