Sunset group finds use for memorial fund after 24 years

It was the $1,200 that stayed in the bank through the end of the Cold War, the Clinton impeachment, 9/11 and more than one hair-raising recession.

Month after month, when the Sunset Beach Community Assn. gave its treasurer's report, the Peter Duval Fund took up one line of it. And month after month, the board adjourned without having found a use for the money.

"It was reported on, but no one really had a place for it," said association member Greg Griffin. "It just kind of sat there."

Now, after more than two decades, the community that gathered $1,200 in tribute to a deceased friend finally plans to spend it.

Last fall, the Orange County Fire Authority dissolved Sunset Beach's volunteer fire crew and put the station up for sale. The community association went into escrow in March on the building, where Peter Duval once served as a fire captain, and hopes to transform it into a community center by fall.

Among the renovations planned is a bronze plaque honoring the men and women who staffed the volunteer squad. The association expects the Peter Duval Fund, which grew to more than $1,500 as it accrued interest, to cover the cost.

Whether or not Duval's name appears on the plaque — a committee is still working on the design — his neighbors consider it a more substantial tribute than a recurring line on the budget.

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'A community character'

Mike Van Voorhis, the community association president and a former fire volunteer, remembers Duval as a local celebrity in his day.

For years, he owned Mother's Tavern, a dive bar that still operates on Pacific Coast Highway. He once served as community association president. And he was always quick to volunteer, whether it was for the fire squad or another community group.

"He was a community character," Van Voorhis said. "He had personality and then some."

Duval had served on the fire squad for nearly a decade before he contracted pneumonia and other illnesses, Van Voorhis said.

After he died in 1987, his neighbors held a service at the community lot and gathered money for his parents, who lived in Philadelphia.

However, Duval's parents quickly returned the money, saying it should go to the fire program where their son donated so much of his time.

The problem, Van Voorhis said, was that the association could find nothing to spend it on. Sunset Beach already hosted a firemen's ball every year to raise funds, and the fire authority took care of maintaining the station.

So the association deposited the money and promised to tap it at a later date. And that was the last transaction for nearly a quarter-century.

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The squad next door

Orange County Fire Station No. 3, which resides around the corner from Harpoon Harry's restaurant, has long been a de facto community center for Sunset Beach. The neighborhood uses the property for its annual art festival, chili cookoff and other events.

"In that way, it won't change," said Lyman Lokken, chairman of the community association's fundraising committee. "The only difference is there won't be fire engines in the front."

Sunset Beach got more than a little use out of those engines over the years. Van Voorhis, a member of the crew for 24 years, said volunteers sometimes joined strike teams that fought fires in Malibu, Emerald Bay and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Sunset Beach provided its own share of action. Van Voorhis recalled battling fires at houses and at least one tattoo parlor. Once, he said, his team responded at a restaurant where the crouton-maker had overheated and set fire to the kitchen.

"There is a comfort in having a neighbor come to your aid when you're in need," Van Voorhis said. "Losing the volunteer squad was a loss to our community, but times change."

The times changed officially last fall, when the fire authority ran a countywide study and eliminated 10 volunteer crews, including Sunset Beach's, that had low response times.

Spokesman Kris Concepcion said county and Huntington Beach firefighters took care of most incidents, and volunteers — who often had to juggle firefighting with jobs and families — played more of a supporting role in recent years.

"They provided a service, but their role on fires had been diminishing over time," he said.

But Fire Station No. 3 had more of a community connection than most — according to Concepcion, it was one of four stations in the county out of 62 that staffed only volunteers.

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Final balance: $0

When the station went up for sale, the community association and Sunset Beach Sanitary District both applied to buy it. The sanitary district, though, opted to give the community association first dibs on the property because it had been a staple of Sunset Beach life for so long.

Led by Lokken and Pat Thies, the association scraped together more than $200,000 in donations, nearly all of them from residents.

Now, the group is preparing to enter the permit process to start construction on the building. Among other things, the overseers plan to install new heating vents, gas and electric lines and a sound system, Van Voorhis said.

When it's done, they look forward to seeing the plaque hanging outside — and seeing a blank space on the monthly agenda where "Peter Duval Fund" lingered for years.

"It is a good feeling," Griffin said. "I think the money is kind of being used as it was intended."

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