BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
Art Holland, the man who owns half of the property the Signal Hill Historical Society (SHHS) wants to use for a museum, said he is willing to discuss dividing the property with the Society, but he said that so far no one from the group has contacted him.
About three weeks ago, the Signal Tribune spoke with Nancy Long, SHHS director of public relations. At that time she claimed that Holland was refusing to talk to any member of SHHS. “We need to work with the city, but our first priority is to work with Mr. Holland,” she said. “Right now he is not conversing with us at all. We are apparently at a standoff.”
“That is absolutely not true,” Holland said. “I have been very friendly to them, but they do not bother to communicate with me. They just do whatever they want on the property without giving me any kind of advance notice.”
As of press time, Long had not returned the Signal Tribune’s calls asking her to respond to Holland’s statement.
Holland owned the property with Signal Hill resident Willard Gillam for more than four decades, but last July Gillam deeded his half interest in it to the SHHS. “Nobody even told me that Willard had given his half of the ownership to the Historical Society,” Holland said. “I found out from one of the policemen that was present at the cleanup that Willard had deeded it to the Society. Obviously, I didn’t like the idea that the Historical Society did not even bother to phone me to let me know what was going on.”
The cleanup Holland mentioned took place shortly after Gillam had given his interest in the property to the SHHS. “That was the third time the city had to go in and clean it up,” said Gary Jones, Signal Hill’s director of community development. According to City Hall records, the city had to clean the property up in 1982, 2002 and July of this year. That most recent effort involved the removal of junk, inoperable vehicles, overgrown and dry vegetation and debris. It also included boarding up the house, which was built in 1908.
After the cleanup, the city presented Holland and SHHS with a bill for $28,029 for nuisance abatement and $824 for an overdue water bill. Holland said he understands that because he is half owner of the property, the city had to bill him as well as the new half owner, the SHHS, for the cleanup, but he insisted that all of the items on the property belonged to Gillam. “I had absolutely nothing of mine on that property,” he said. “It was all his, but I got the blame for it because I was one of the owners. I did everything I could to get Willard to get rid of some of the cars, but he refused.”
Holland, who lives in Garden Grove, stressed that he would have gladly removed the cars and debris from the yard and house, but Gillam would not allow it. “I could not take his stuff out of there without his permission,” he said. “If I did, I might have been arrested or sued.”
Jones said it was fair to say everything in the yard and house belonged to Gillam, but he insisted that Holland, as half owner of the property, could have done something about it. “I don’t know why Art didn’t get more active years ago,” he said. “He could have sued Willard (for devaluing the property and creating a nuisance).”
Holland said he is seriously considering suing Gillam now. ‘While I do not blame the city for billing me, I should not have to pay for half of the cleanup, nor should I have to pay for the water bill that was all Willard’s,” he said.
The Signal Tribune phoned Gillam’s house several times to get his perspective. There was no answer and no answering machine.
Holland also questioned the wisdom of converting the house into a museum. “They think the house can be fixed up, and I sympathize with them, but I think they are wrong about that,” he explained. “In 1983 structural engineers inspected the house and wrote a report on it that said fixing up the house would cost more than tearing it down and building a whole new house. That was 25 years ago, and as far as I know, nothing has been done to the house since then.”
Jones said a copy of that engineer’s report was in City Hall. “It does state that the total cost of repair and rehabilitation of the existing building would probably exceed the cost of replacement,” he said.
Holland said that a city building inspector came to the same conclusion in 2007, and Jones acknowledged that was true as well. “When we initiated our most recent code enforcement process, our building official did a notice of substandard building,” he said. “That resulted in a requirement that no one could occupy the building and that it had to be secured (boarded up).” Jones said the deficiencies in the building included the likelihood that portions of it were likely to fail and collapse.
However, in spite of the expense involved in renovating the building, Jones said it might be in the best interests of future generations to retrofit the house. “The Historical Society’s idea is that they are willing to do the necessary repair and renovation in order to preserve history,” he said. “There is value in giving people the opportunity to see what life was like a hundred years ago.”
Meanwhile, Holland is concerned about errors made in the filing of Gillam’s donation to the SHHS. “They screwed up on the quitclaim deed and do not have me on the title as an owner anymore,” he explained. “I never signed anything, but Willard gave them a quitclaim deed, and the title companies don’t have me on the record anymore.” He noted, however, that he is confident that he will be able to straighten it out, because an accurate record is in the county tax assessor’s office.
Holland said he was puzzled by the SHHS’s failure to communicate with him. “As for the lot split, I am going to be very flexible. I will let them have the best part of it so they can keep the house,” he said. “But they need the lot split more than I do, so they need to do something in a hurry.”