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‘Problem Home,’ Chapter 1: How a little house in Costa Mesa triggered a 20-year war between its owner and the city

Phillip Richardson was in Northern California for a funeral when he received an unexpected message from his son, who was standing in disbelief on the family’s Costa Mesa driveway.

Their 1940s-era three-bedroom bungalow on East 19th Street was boarded up and fenced off. A 20-foot sailboat and four motor vehicles, including a Volkswagen van painted the “ugliest metallic brown imaginable,” were missing.

The VW once carried the Richardson children to school. Now it was gone, leaving Michael distraught.

“How do we get our stuff back, Dad?” he asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” his father assured. “We’ll get our stuff back.”

Sometime after that afternoon in December 2013, Richardson, a paralegal, looked himself up in the Orange County Superior Court database. What he uncovered surprised him, he says.

Months earlier, the city of Costa Mesa had filed a civil complaint against him and his deceased wife, Julie. The city made a series of code enforcement allegations — illegal storage of items in public view, overgrown vegetation, a substandard roof — about the house at 276 E. 19th St.

City officials argued in court that the property was infested with bees and rats, abandoned and left to deteriorate. Overgrown vegetation created a fire hazard, they said, and the refrigerator contained spoiled food.

“The home displayed signs of severe hoarding,” according to a city court filing.

The house was red-tagged that summer. Officials declared it a public health and safety problem.

The home had been a target for City Hall since the late 1990s. Over some 20 years, Richardson and city attorneys have jousted over code enforcement disputes, amassing thousands of pages in legal filings and hundreds of hours worth of legal bills.

The Richardsons had owned the home since the 1970s, but following Julie’s death in 2000, Phillip moved to a place nearby in about 2004. He and his children maintained 276 E. 19th as their legal address and kept most of their possessions there. The children also lived in the house for periods of time until 2013.

When the city filed its suit, Richardson says, his property was being used for storage. Sometimes his adult children stopped by to pick up mail and feed the cats.

Though Richardson disputes it, Costa Mesa’s lawyers claimed in court that they tried to contact him in 2012 and 2013 about the code problems but never heard back. So they went to court without him.

On Dec. 18, 2013, apparently unbeknownst to the family and a few days before Michael contacted his father, the court appointed California Receivership Group to take over the property. The Los Angeles firm towed the motor vehicles to Santa Ana. It’s unclear what happened to the boat. The next month, without Richardson’s knowledge, a crew cleared out the home.

California Receivership’s president, Mark Adams, reported in court that his team placed personal property found in the house into an onsite storage container.

Richardson, however, claims the vehicles, boat and $300,000 worth of personal effects remain missing. They ranged from the valuable to the sentimental: tools, wedding photos, baby books, family videos, china, five diamond rings, antique weapons, sailing trophies, an uncut $2 bill, stamp and coin collections, audio tapes with an oral history from grandparents, Julie’s ashes.

Days after his son told him their old house was fenced and boarded, Richardson saw it for himself.

The state of his little Eastside homestead infuriated him. Compelled by the urges of his younger self, he considered ripping through the chain-link fence, toppling the barrier, tearing down the boards, tromping back into his castle and reclaiming it from the meddlesome grasp of government.

But that wasn’t his style anymore.

Richardson realized he needed a long-term strategy — a legal one. He surmised the civil case would become just another chapter in his saga, one he likely would win, as in previous fights with the city.

Whoever stood in his way, “they were going to pay for it,” he vowed.

How it started: Trash and a Dodge pickup

By Richardson’s account, his code enforcement troubles started with a $35 infraction and worsened each year.

It began one day when a code enforcement officer asked if his Dodge pickup was operational. She cited a code that permitted authorities to remove inoperable cars.

The officer had been bothering him for some time, Richardson said. Her latest inquiry set him off.

“Listen,” Richardson recalled saying, “I have a mother. I don’t need another one. Get lost.”

The officer walked onto his property, according to Richardson, who told her to leave. She didn’t.

Richardson revved his truck and backed it “within 18 inches” of her car. She sped away, he said.

“I shouldn’t have done it,” Richardson said. “It was childish. I admit that.”

Continually strained relations with City Hall followed.

City officials issued citations for overgrown foliage and trash on his lawn, though Richardson said the trash was just old newspapers.

Instead of paying the fines, he asked for a hearing in “Costa Mesa kangaroo court.” The case was forwarded to Orange County Superior Court.

For Richardson, the whole thing was government overreach, spearheaded by a code enforcement bully.

“I don’t believe in bullies,” he said.

::

In Chapter 2, Richardson describes a history of fighting local government and a childhood rooted in moral codes.

In Chapter 3, the fight between Richardson and City Hall over his Eastside home starts to ramp up.

In Chapter 4, Richardson fights his criminal conviction while facing a new courtroom adversary, who has challenges of his own.

In Chapter 5, the city begins its fourth effort on the Richardson home since 2001 and moves in on his property.

 

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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