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Lord of the Faerie Ring

Jim Friedman's uphill climb to create a community

By Matthew hagan

On a chilly November afternoon near Guerneville, the Faerie Ring Campground lies silent. Shafts of sunlight filter through thick stands of redwoods, illuminating a fleet of 40 or so trailers, RVs and fifth wheels perched upon a hillside. A household cat prowls beside a white bus converted into a home.

It's a steep hike to the top of the hill where the campground's boundary meets the forest, but it's nothing compared to the uphill climb owner Jim Friedman's been on since he purchased the Faerie Ring three years ago for $439,000.

"I was working long hours and wanted something to invest in, something that would allow me to move toward my dreams," recalls Friedman, a psychologist who for the past five years has worked with prisoners in San Quentin. He envisioned creating a retreat, not just for himself, but for other people seeking spiritual healing. Adjusting his wire-framed glasses and gazing out across the campground, he says, "I thought it would be like spending all day in Hell, only to come home every night to Heaven."

Instead, Friedman discovered that he'd bought into Sonoma County's longstanding problems with homelessness and affordable housing.

When he first moved into the 13-acre campground in 2001, he found that there were already a number of people living there permanently. Some were physically or mentally disabled and on low or fixed incomes; others were just down on their luck. The Faerie Ring, with space rents ranging from $400 to $500, is one of the few affordable havens in a region where the median rent exceeds $1,000.

As winter's chill set in, more people flocked to the campground, and Friedman decided that he would take in as many as he could.

His uphill climb had begun.

As a prison psychologist, Friedman was well aware how the mentally ill, the disabled and the poor have been shoved to society's margins. But such awareness didn't help all that much when residents refused to pay rent, allowed their campsites to become overrun with garbage or became violent with their neighbors. He chose to focus on helping residents who were trying to help themselves.

"I decided to make it a safer environment," he says. "To do this, I started an eviction process. Once it was through, I think what was left was a really good group of people. These people were in mental-health programs, drug rehab and some of them were just trying to save money so they could buy a house."

Certainly, most of the residents were in need of spiritual healing, and although Friedman had perhaps envisioned a slightly different clientele for his imagined retreat, the Faerie Ring had become a retreat all the same. He felt he was once again on track. Then the feces, quite literally, hit the fan.

The septic system at the campground backed up, and the county ordered it fixed. Friedman met with several companies, and one said it could fix the problem, but didn't. In the meantime, Friedman had to pay to pump the septic system every other day. "A plumbing firm came in and said that they could get the system back in working order," he remembers. "After they did their repairs, it worked for several weeks. Then oil in the tank caused it to clog again."

After these failures, Friedman had a civil engineer come out and excavate the property. "My understanding was that they would handle things with the county," he sighs, noting that he had been unaware that he hadn't been fulfilling his obligations with the county. "I thought we were progressing as fast as possible, but that's when the notice for the abatement hearing came."

Mariellen Otto and her husband Don have lived in the only house at the campground for the past year and presently serve as assistant managers. On this chilly November day, green plastic chairs encircle the Otto's concrete driveway in anticipation of that afternoon's community meeting. Mariellen Otto says, "When the notice of abatement came from the county, we all thought that the park was going to close and we were going to lose our homes."

Friedman had not moved swiftly enough to correct the septic problem and while he thought plans for a new system had already been submitted to the county, he was mistaken. "I definitely feel like I should have been more on top of the situation," he says. The mistake cost him dearly, with Friedman being fined $9,795, a huge blow considering the several thousand dollars he says he loses every month on the property.

Friedman now has a septic plan submitted to the county and is ready to begin construction on the new system. "I am hopeful that the septic system will be taken care of by early next year," he says. "We have also discovered some electrical issues at the campground that we hope will be fixed by next year as well."

With these problems being solved, Friedman can look to the campground's future.

"I want the Faerie Ring to continue to be a supportive community of people willing to look out for one another," he says. "I would like to create a program where people can learn how to take care of themselves, and if they need it, receive counseling."

With the immediate problems on their way to resolution and the future of the Faerie Ring looking brighter, Friedman is on the verge of realizing his dream, which has evolved from creating a sanctuary for himself to providing a safe haven for people who really need it.

"Everybody here helps everybody," says Mariellen Otto. "You don't get that in a lot of places. Neighbors just aren't friends, but here they are." A board committee has been established for residents to air grievances, and Freidman recently began training the Ottos in mediation techniques.

"Jim is a wonderful human being," she adds. "He's honest, forthright and he doesn't try to hide anything from us. He truly is a great guy."

A guy who, one day, just might make it to the top of the hill.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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