A Moorpark church built brick by brick with the labor of its members has been forced to close its doors because the congregation cannot afford to reinforce the 50-year-old building against earthquakes.
“I’ve been crying a lot. My heart is broken to see all that work we did,” said 84-year-old Helen Baraza of Moorpark, one of the original members of Ebenezer Free Methodist Church on Charles Street.
The church is the first victim in Ventura County of a state law requiring masonry buildings to be strengthened to withstand the force of a major earthquake.
Most buildings of unreinforced masonry were constructed more than 20 years ago, before lawmakers required new construction to include steel reinforcements, said Bill Windroth, a Ventura County building official.
State law directs cities and counties to enforce new earthquake safety laws, and the Moorpark City Council passed an ordinance last September requiring owners of seven brick buildings to submit engineering studies. Those studies had to outline plans necessary to make the improvements or prove that the buildings already have sufficient reinforcements.
The Ebenezer congregation was the only owner that did not comply, said Patrick Richards, the city’s community development director. Church leaders decided to close the building rather than try to raise an estimated $90,000 to install steel beams, as the law requires.
Congregation members built the brick and concrete-block church in 1941 to replace an older wood-frame building. Ironically, the wooden structure, which could sway with tremors, would probably have met today’s earthquake building codes, church members said.
The people who helped build the brick church said no steel was put in it, church treasurer Jim Almaguer said.
“We can’t see spending money for an engineer to come in and see if there’s steel in it when we know there is not,” said Jimmie Estrada, superintendent of the church’s governing body, the Pacific Coast Latin American Free Methodist Conference.
The congregation’s dozen members say they cannot afford to pay the tens of thousands of dollars it would cost to reinforce the building. Estrada said he told the church to close rather than wait for the city to close it.
“We don’t fight City Hall,” Estrada said.
Since the last service on June 30, the pastor has relocated to another church south of San Diego, Almaguer said. Now, congregation members in Moorpark meet twice a week in each other’s home.
The congregation may be in jeopardy anyway because the Methodist conference does not recognize churches with memberships of fewer than 10 people, Estrada said.
The conference board will decide in early September what to do with the Moorpark building, Estrada said. One possibility may be to sell the lot, which the congregation bought for $1,500 in 1939, and use the proceeds to buy another building, he said. Yet even this might be expensive for such a small congregation, he said.
Moorpark’s earthquake reinforcement ordinance is one of the toughest in Ventura County.
For example, Santa Paula’s ordinance is voluntary. Owners of the 120 unreinforced masonry buildings in the city are allowed to determine whether to do seismic safety repairs, Mayor John Melton said.
Simi Valley gave owners of its two unreinforced masonry buildings four years to submit engineering studies. Fillmore, Ventura and Oxnard have yet to enact ordinances.
Ventura County, which regulates building safety in Camarillo as well as unincorporated areas, adopted an ordinance similar to Moorpark’s. The county gives owners 270 days to submit engineering studies on earthquake safety. Ojai has adopted a similar ordinance.
This stricter approach to earthquake safety is likely to become more common, Windroth said. The state has indicated that it may withhold money from cities that do not force owners to make their buildings safe.
As the state strengthens earthquake safety requirements, Windroth said, it is only a matter of time before local officials require owners to upgrade the estimated 440 unreinforced brick buildings in the county or force their closure.