Aging power lines force trailer park residents to leave

Less than two miles from Yosemite National Park, El Portal RV Park sits along the Merced River in a peaceful mountain valley surrounded by oak and pine trees.

After spring showers, Luke Harbin could sometimes see a natural waterfall on the canyon walls from his garden.

But not anymore.

Over the weekend, Harbin, her mother Lynn and a dozen of their neighbors packed up their things and said goodbye to the place they’ve called home, in some cases, for decades. All worked for the National Park Service or a concession company, such as a hotel.

The Park Service, which owns the land the trailer park sits on near Highway 140, notified residents in December that the federal government would close the site due to deteriorating overhead power lines. Residents were given 90 days notice that they would have to vacate.

For years, residents have found themselves caught in a quagmire between federal and local jurisdictions. They leased the land from the Park Service, paid the federal government for electricity, and applied for renovation permits from Mariposa County.

In October, the Park Service announced that utility company Pacific Gas & Electric would assess the trailer park’s power lines. The federal agency also informed residents that the area was to become an RV campground and that construction on the project would begin in 2024.

However, the tenants were not immediately told to leave. They were told it would depend on the condition of the power lines.

Then, in December, residents received another letter from the Park Service giving them 90 days to get rid of.

“We all sort of looked at each other because they tried to kick us out so many times in the past. We thought, “Well, maybe that’s a joke,” 32-year-old Luke Harbin said when reached by phone. “The Park Service keeps changing its ideas and plans for the area.”

The decision to close El Portal Trailer Park was not taken lightly, Yosemite Park Supt. Cecily Muldoon told The Times. Multiple reviews of power lines in the area, including PG&E’s assessment, showed a real fire risk.

“As you know, all of California is fire country, but it is absolutely fire country,” Muldoon said. “It made us very uncomfortable with the risk to human life.”

For years, residents of the El Portal trailer park have been told of other plans that would have repurposed the land and closed the park, but none of those plans ever materialized. In 2014, the National Park Service released the Merced River Plan, which serves as a guide for river management and outlines plans for the removal of the El Portal trailer park. But locals thought there would be more time.

“For decades there have been plans,” said Greg Magruder, a member of the planning advisory committee for El Portal, a group that works with the county to address local issues. “[The Park Service are] great for planning and really shitty for making those plans happen.

Magruder, who is retired, lives outside the trailer park but leases his property to the National Park Service. He says many residents are employees who have worked for the Park Service or one of the dealerships for decades. While Muldoon would have liked to give residents at least a year’s notice before terminating their leases, the electrical hazard hastened that delay.

“We really had a duty to act,” Muldoon said. “Once the seriousness of this electrical hazard was revealed, we worried every day. From the time we discovered this to the time we depowered it a few days ago. Just a stray spark and a fire started there could have cost people their lives. We may have bad press now, but the real bad result would be if someone got injured there.

Muldoon described the one-on-one meetings she had with the tenants as difficult and a “fundamentally sad situation”.

Over the next few years, the trailer park will transition from a residential area to an administrative site that can accommodate the new campground. Repairing power lines would not have been given such a high priority based on the other infrastructure projects around Yosemite National Park.

The federal agency’s moves to evict residents are seen by some as a legal gray area, largely because residents’ homes remain on the property. National Park Service spokeswoman Denise Adamic said the agency had considered whether it could compensate residents, but “did not find a viable legal authority”.

Robert Cortez, an attorney with Central California Legal Services Inc., represents two former residents of the trailer park and generally helps residents fight unlawful detentions or evictions. But Cortez said the residents of the trailer park technically did not receive eviction notices. The December letter terminated the tenant’s lease and did not mention any plans to repurpose the site, Cortez said.

Typically, these types of cases take place in state courts where tenants can challenge their landlord. Cortez said the Park Service’s actions with El Portal residents fit a classic definition of eviction where a landlord makes a property so deplorable they can no longer live there.

The parks department shut off the power to the trailer park over the weekend and installed new fencing around the property. Residents were also threatened with six months in jail or a $5,000 fine for trespassing and illegal residence on federal land.

“In my opinion, this is a constructive approach expulsion. The owner has not physically removed anyone from his property,” Cortez said. But the landlord in this case managed to remove the tenants.

Lynn Harbin has lived in her home for 38 years. His son Luke grew up there and moved back home a few years ago.

Residents of El Portal Trailer Park are forced to relocate by the National Park Service, which owns the land on which the homes sit.

(Craig Kohlruss / The Fresno Bee)

On Wednesday, Luke Harbin packed his family’s belongings into his car. The whole experience was traumatic for him and his mother, who burst into tears during a meeting with Park Service management. They said the staff seemed unfazed by the fact that they were losing their home.

Luke Harbin planned to pack up his things and store them 100 miles away in a storage unit in Fresno. Lynn and several other former residents of the trailer park were offered rooms in an employee dormitory through a dealership. But the same offer was not made to Luke.

“I stay at a friend’s place, I live in my car,” he said.

Los Angeles Times

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