The two vacant houses on Hill Street that sit on the boundary line between Long Beach and Signal Hill are still in limbo, but last week, on Sept. 20, one of them mysteriously caught fire. The upscale homes, which Long Beach officials want demolished, were constructed by developer Wayne Ballinger in 2003 but have never been occupied because he and all subsequent owners have been unable to obtain easements for utilities and driveways. The houses are located at 2910 and 2914 Hill St. in Long Beach, in the 4th City Council District. The house at 2910 Hill St. was the one damaged by the fire.
The houses are owned by Tarzana-based Six Angels, Inc., which purchased the homes in 2008 for $800,000. Brian Angel, one of company principals, said the fire caused $100,000 to $150,000 in damage, but the houses are insured. “We do not know what caused the fire,” he said. “We have kicked homeless people off the property in the past, but the houses are very secure, and I do not know how someone could have gotten inside.”
According to Will Nash, public information officer for the Long Beach Fire Department, the fire was reported by a neighbor at 4:26pm. “The first units arrived at the scene five minutes later, and the fire was knocked down in six minutes,” he said. “It was a slow-burning, smoldering fire, but the firefighters had to tear into the building to get to it.”
Nash explained that the fire was probably slowly burning for quite some time before smoke became visible from outside the house. He added that no one was injured by the blaze, and the last of the firefighters left the scene at 5:39pm.
“The cause of the fire is unknown at this time,” Nash said. “An investigator is conducting a review, but I do not know when he will reach a conclusion.”
Angel said that while the easements have been obtained, neither of the houses is connected to gas or electric lines.
Signal Hill City Councilmember Larry Forester arrived at the scene shortly after the firefighters left. “It looked like the back upper bedroom and part of the garage area was burned,” he said. Nash said he could not confirm Forester’s statment.
The fire added a strange twist to Six Angels’ four-year effort to bring the houses up to code and put them on the real-estate market.
According to Deputy Long Beach City Attorney Kendra Carney, several months ago, the City of Long Beach filed a lawsuit seeking a court order for the demolition of the two houses. The hearing, which had been scheduled for Aug. 22 in San Pedro, is now scheduled for March 12, 2013. “The trial date that we originally had was changed because the judge assigned to the case, for reasons we do not know, could not be there on the August date, and a new judge had to be assigned,” Carney explained.
Carney noted that she and the attorney for Six Angels have had two status conferences with the new judge since August. “In our last conference, the judge determined that she would like to find out whether or not the other public entities involved were planning on giving will-serve letters for utilities to the property owners,” Carney said. “We have another status conference scheduled for October 26 in San Pedro, at which time the attorney for the property owner will provide that information.”
The status conference and the trial will take place in Department 85 of the San Pedro branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, 505 South Centre Street, in San Pedro.
Fourth District Long Beach City Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell said he was very unhappy with the trial date continuence. “You can be sure that I am pushing the city attorney’s office to move this forward as quickly as possible,” he stressed. “The houses need to be demolished, and every time we seem to be getting close to having them torn down, something happens to delay the process.”
O’Donnell added that he doubted Six Angels could prove in court that local utility companies would provide services to the houses. “Of course, anything is possible,” he acknowledged. “But, so far, the owners have made nothing but empty promises.” He explained that, at several hearings, Six Angels representatives have told the court that they were on the verge of obtaining easements for driveways or utilities, but so far have not provided proof that they have succeeded in those efforts. “To me, the best solution is to scrape the houses off of the face of the Earth,” O’Donnell said.
Angel sharply disagreed with O’Donnell. “We have the will-serve letters for electricity and gas,” he said. “The only thing holding us up is that we do not have a will-serve letter for water from the City of Signal Hill, and I am still working on getting that before the October 26 hearing.”
Angel explained that the City of Signal Hill cannot issue the will-serve letter until the City of Long Beach requests it, and that has not happened yet. “Unfortunately, the City of Long Beach has not been as cooperative as we had hoped,” he said. “But we are still doing everything we can to move this project forward.”
Angel added that the company purchased two lots for driveways behind the houses about a year ago and has prepared the plans for the grading and paving in order to connect the house lots to Orizaba Avenue. “As far as I know, we have already shown Long Beach that we have the will-serve letters and the land necessary for driveway easements, so I do not understand why anyone in Long Beach is saying we have not done that,” he insisted.
O’Donnell said that although he did not know the cause of the fire, he believed it was very possible that a homeless person started it accidentally. “The fact that the houses have been obviously vacant for so long attracts undesirable elements to the neighborhood,” he noted. “I hope the fire causes the judge to realize this is not just a cosmetic issue, but it’s a public-safety issue.”
Nash said that, so far, neither the fire department nor the city building department have made an official pronouncement as to how the houses impact public safety.