When Michael Novratil and his family moved into a house on Alabama Street two years ago, they got a special bonus from the city: a piece of municipally owned land in the backyard, complete with a fence, that provided a perfect place for their dogs to run around.
Now, Novratil may have to find a new place for his dogs to play. The city, responding to some complaints and inquiries, has ordered all the fences to come down by Jan. 12.
Walking down the well-manicured Lake Street where embattled former Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo used to live, one wouldn't know about the alley stretch hidden between Lake and Alabama.
Years ago, the famous Red Cars owned by the Pacific Electric Railway ran through there. When that stopped, the Huntington Beach Co. gave the railroad stretch to the city in 1987. And since then, nothing has been done with it — so residents began using it for themselves.
The alley, which stretches horizontally between Utica and Indianapolis avenues where a Southern California Edison power substation is housed, has been divided by residents, with each household taking over the area directly across from it.
Although there aren't any official agreements between the city and the residents who live near the land, the city has allowed residents to use it as long as permanent structures are not built on it, according to Director of Public Works Travis Hopkins.
"It's city property, and the city hasn't programmed it or scheduled to do any improvements on the property," he said. "So the city has allowed adjacent property owners to use it, but not put any permanent structures there."
But some have gone beyond what the city has allowed. Residents near the Edison substation, where a fence and a gate had been installed by the city to discourage illegal dumping, have fenced off their own areas and erected another gate at the opposite end of the alley, closing some of it from public access.
That has gotten under the skin of resident Diane Amendola.
The 68-year-old, who doesn't live near the city-owned land area, said she likes to walk through there because of how serene and peaceful the area looks with the birdhouses, trees and gardens that some residents have installed.
But one day, while trying to take a shortcut, she ran across the welded gate and couldn't get through.
"I don't have a problem with people using it, but it's the fencing that really upsets me," she said. "I pay taxes here. That's my property, too. City property belongs to the public, and I'm very much opposed to anybody putting fencing on city property to keep citizens out."
Though city staff visit the area at least once a year to remove weeds as part of the weed abatement program, nothing was done about the extra fencing until Amendola wrote to the Public Works Department and the Independent began inquiring about it.
A city staff member visited the area earlier this month and placed a handful of notices on the extra fencing, including one of the gates, asking the residents to remove them by Jan. 12. If the residents do not remove them, the city will, the notice said.
That move has surprised some residents.
A piece of the city-owned land directly adjacent to the Novratils' home has been fenced off, giving them an extra, exclusive area for their use. It's one of the fences the city has targeted for removal.
Novratil said he spoke with the owner of the house after the notice was placed, and the owner said the fence was there when he bought it.
The city could not provide information on when the fences were installed. But Novratil and other residents said they have been there for many years.
Elise Hardin, who doesn't have a backyard, said she and her family don't use the city-owned piece often, but that she stores some chairs there. She said she'll have to find another place for them.
Her husband, Shane Hardin, said they were told the city-owned area is a community backyard by the owner of the home they rent when they moved in a year ago. Each of the residents there has a gate that opens up to the city-owned land.
Some residents have gone beyond fencing, even placing a "beware of dogs" sign to keep everyone out.
Still, residents who use the area but haven't fenced it off won't be affected, at least for now, Hopkins said.
Some residents have planted trees, placed lounge chairs and tables and even built gazebos. One gazebo had a sign that read "Welcome to Dave and Chriss Garden."
Jerry and Cathryn Wallace are some of those who have used a piece of the city-owned land for many years. The backyard of their house is quite small, but thanks to the extra space, it's been extended by about 1,600 square feet.
Jerry Wallace has been keeping up the city-owned area right to the back of his garage for about 10 years since moving to the house. He planted trees and waters and mows the grass. He said he spends about $1,000 a year to keep it up, making it hard for anyone to dump trash or unwanted household items.
Since retiring early this year, Wallace, who says he's a pretty good cook, has been using it to also grow vegetables. He grew beans, tomatoes, eggplants, chili peppers and onions, and braised meat with tomato and chili pepper.
The Wallaces also use the land to play bocce from time to time. Sometimes, when the couple have friends over, the guests naturally drift to that area.
Wallace said he knows it's city-owned, but he also knows that the city has allowed residents to use it as long as there aren't any permanent structures there. Trees aren't considered permanent structures.
Aside from having the land for their own use, Jerry Wallace said it's better to maintain it than to leave it for everyone to dump trash and unwanted items.
"When it's not taken care of, nobody respects it," he said. "But when it's taken care of, everybody respects it."
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