Editor’s note: This corrects the spelling of Julie Karges’ last name.
I once had a neighbor who made a living as a tree trimmer. And every so often, he would dig up an unwanted but valuable tree — usually some kind of palm — and plant it haphazardly in his front yard.
His property turned into a mismatched forest of odd trees, the new arrivals taking the place of the ones he sold whenever he was short on cash, which was often. The tree trimmer’s property became very quirky and very un-Irvine, which was part of the reason I moved to Eastside Costa Mesa. I liked the character — and characters — of the neighborhood.
Live and let live with no homeowner associations in sight.
That’s why I don’t get the small but spirited backlash against Dennis Holland, who lives in my neck of the woods though on a ribbon of land that belongs to Newport Beach.
He’s the quixotic master shipwright who has been restoring a nearly century-old, 72-foot sailboat — named the Shawnee — in his yard for the past five years. The soft-spoken 65-year-old is the reason behind a 2009 city law that basically requires projects such as Holland’s to be completed in six months — if they are granted a permit at all.
Last week — after years of wrangling — city officials issued Holland his first citation for taking too long to restore his boat. If he doesn’t remove the Shawnee from his yard, he faces a series of escalating fines and eventual action by the City Attorney.
Holland vows that he won’t move the boat. He says he had verbal approval from the city to restore the Shawnee on his property; the 2009 city law can’t be retroactively applied to his case; and besides, the boat can’t be moved in its current condition. A court battle may be looming.
“I think the law is on my side,” he told me, before adding, “but this is my city. I would hate to sue myself.”
When driving around town, I frequently find myself turning onto Holiday Road from Irvine Avenue for no other reason than to take a look at the Shawnee. It is quite something to see a massive sailboat, perched high on wooden braces, towering above an otherwise pretty, but unremarkable, neighborhood.
I found myself doing the same thing in my college years when Holland was building, from scratch, what’s now called the Spirit of Dana Point, a 118-foot replica of a 1770 schooner. I would purposely go out of my way to travel down nearby Santa Ana Avenue, where Holland lived then, just to check on the ship’s progress. It took him a dozen years to finish the job.
On Monday, I decided to not just drive by Holland’s house, but to stop in for a chat. I found a man who loves to talk almost as he loves old boats.
He told me he planned to replace the Shawnee’s rotting ribs with wood from an Amish lumberman in Pennsylvania — and Holland would make the pick up and delivery himself. The side planks would come from Alaskan wood and the decking from trees in Oregon. The hardware, circa 1915 or older, would come from England for an authentic restoration.
He talked about having his eye on the Shawnee for decades, first spotting it in San Francisco in 1954 when he was 8 years old, and later in Newport Harbor. He even kept the name and phone number of its owner ready if an opportune time came to strike a deal.
Through neglect of the boat and the death of its owner, the Shawnee in 2004 was slated to be taken out to sea and sunk. Holland stepped in to save her and barely managed to keep her afloat in Newport Harbor while he figured out if he wanted to take on the massive task of restoring her.
Approaching his 60s, Holland needed to make sure he would be physically able to complete the job. He went to the doctor for a checkup and got the bad news: he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. He was given 18 months to live — that was seven years ago.
He found another oncologist, one who shared his love for sailing and adventure. With experimental treatments, Holland was given a better prognosis and told that he needed a project such as the Shawnee to lift his spirits.
In 2006, the boat landed in Holland’s backyard.
I guess there are two kinds of people in the world who will never see eye-to-eye. There are folks who look — year after year after year — at Holland’s dilapidated boat in a residential neighborhood and seethe. This is no place for a shipyard. He’s flaunting city codes. He’s bringing down property values.
And there are people like me who are captivated by the audacity of Holland’s vision and don’t see why the rules can’t be relaxed for this maverick shipwright who’s restoring a century-old boat in his yard.
When I drive by Holland’s home, I don’t see an eyesore or a code violation. I see a unique and welcome relief to our everyday sameness that we will probably never witness again in our community. I mean, how many of these characters do we have in Newport-Mesa? I’d guess just one.
To shut Holland down would be a little like telling William Randolph Hearst that he’d better scale back his castle a bit — and hurry up and finish (yeah, I know, he didn’t have any neighbors, but you get the idea).
Holland’s most vocal critic is, not surprisingly, one of his neighbors. The stern of the Shawnee towers over the neighbor’s backyard, less than an inch from the property line.
I tried to be as honest with myself as possible. Would I want this massive sailboat looming over my backyard for years on end?
I looked out at my backyard. Like most people, I don’t have the most dazzling view. I can see the recently installed playground equipment of our new next-door neighbor (disclosure: she happens to be Holland’s married daughter, Julie Karges), and a giant dune buggy with a profanity painted on its side belonging to my neighbor in back.
Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t mind having the Shawnee backed up to my house. I would enjoy watching the renovation progress, and I know Holland would patiently answer the thousands of questions my kids would put to them. Who else could say that a century-old sailboat was being restored right before their very eyes?
Holland says he works about 30 hours a week on the boat, unless he’s slowed by his cancer treatments or just plain down by his battle with the city.
“It’s depressing,” he said. “They are trying to crush my dreams.”
It’s not just Holland’s dreams. He’s living out a fantasy for many of us.
WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is email@example.com.