Agencies cite health and environmental concerns, ask owner to reduce RV park spots from 103 to 47
East of Canyon Country, away from Highway 14, and toward the rocky terrain of the Agua Dulce area, you’ll find a community of people who’ve made a home at Cali Lake RV Resort.
The RV park, purchased in 2018 and renovated throughout the following years by Stewart Silver, has become a safe haven for its approximately 98 residents, who’ve come to think of one another as family.
But tenants are fearing for their community as the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning and the California Department of Housing and Community Development asked Silver to reduce the number of RV spaces from 103 spots to 47 spots, citing health and environmental concerns.
“I prepared a complete conditional-use permit and prepared all the paperwork,” Silver said. “It was supposed to be very easy for me. I made sure I was up to code, they checked it, and I was up to code.”
Silver said starting Jan. 1, 2023, under a rather “difficult agreement,” he will have to start the process of asking RV tenants to vacate the park until he reaches 47 spots unless the county approves the expansion of lots in his park.
“HCD got involved just recently and said, ‘We’re dropping your permit down to 47 spaces and if you don’t comply within a certain period of time, we’re going to close your park down,’” Silver said.
According to Silver, HCD required him to obtain letters from an architect, certified plumber, certified and registered septic professional, the Los Angeles County Public Works Department and a few other agencies to ensure the RV park was up to code.
“We complied and we did everything we were supposed to do,” Silver said. “We’ve been fighting the county over the last two and a half years on the same conditional-use permit.”
“People are people. They have a right to everything we have. They’re not hurting anybody.”
County and state concerns
Samuel Dea, supervising planner for the North County Development Services, a division of the Department of Regional Planning, said the current conditional-use permit is still pending.
In 2019, Silver’s then-permit for the 14-acre park allowed for only 21 mobile home lots and 26 RV lots with drains to be occupied. However, the number of lots exceeded that by double the amount. HCD issued a notice of violation, and stated the owner had 30 days to correct listed violations or face a permit suspension and remove all unapproved lots.
After tenants asked for aid from county and state representatives, staff from HCD and the Department of Regional Planning met with Silver to discuss a new permit. HCD and the Department of Regional Planning allowed Silver to apply for a new conditional-use permit, which would allow 103 spaces for people to either stay permanently or seasonally.
The entire process would require a public hearing, planning and environmental review, which could take at least 12 months to obtain, according to comments from Dea back in 2019.
Silver said their current situation is a continuation of the problems they fought back in 2019.
Dea said the permit, which would allow for 103 spaces, was reissued to only permit 47 spaces. He also explained the environmental and safety concerns.
“There are other concerns regarding the application as well,” Dea said. “So as far as the septic, it’s based on comments we got from the county’s Department of Public Health, which regulates septic systems and drinking water systems on pretty much any type of land use that’s in the county.”
The Regional Department of Planning states the RV park doesn’t have a suitable septic system in place for a large number of RVs parked on the west side of the park. According to Dea, without a proper septic system there are concerns waste could harm or contaminate nearby wildlife and the environment.
“So, because the facility is located in a flood zone, typically you can’t get a septic system approved,” Dea said. “And, have said that, in this particular case, it’s an existing use the county previously permitted. So, Public Health is willing to consider the system to serve the existing number of legally permitted spaces.”
Dea also noted the RV park was located in a “significant ecological area.” The county identifies and designates those significant ecological areas to preserve them, he added.
“The property is located near the Santa Clara River, and the expansion that he [Silver] performed on the facility was never approved,” Dea said. “He expanded from 47 to over 100 spaces. Those spaces would never have been permitted by either the county or the state, or any other public agency.”
Dea reiterated the park was in a flood zone area and a fire hazard severity zone. In case there was a fire, there would be limited access as Soledad Canyon Road is just two lanes going east and west. He also noted a portion of the RV park is encroaching on lands of the Angeles National Forest.
Kyle Krause, deputy director of HCD’s codes and standards division, said they have been monitoring the situation at Cali Lakes RV Resort for a couple of years.
“It’s our understanding that the county has communicated with Stewart Silver clearly what their position is at that time,” Krause said. “They are not going to authorize additional lots to be constructed in that park.”
HCD’s role is to ensure that permits that are issued are in conformance with local land use approval, he added. Cities and counties act as that land use approval, and HCD has authority for issuing operating permits for parks based on the local land use approval, according to Krause.
“We only recognize 47 lots in the park, that are approved by the county,” Krause said. “HCD has a duty to enforce compliance with the local land use of approval.”
“So, until the county changes their position, HCD cannot arbitrarily increase or allow the construction of additional lots within that park.”
Dea said they are in consultation process — where the Department of Regional Planning is in communication with Public Works, the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Public Health to ensure the requirements on the application are cleared before moving on to a planning hearing.
Silver claims otherwise
According to Silver, he addressed these health and safety concerns multiple times.
In response to concerns regarding the septic system, Silver said he’s had his current system inspected several times. He also hired Stephen Layne, who worked for Public Health for 20 years and has expertise in septic systems.
Layne is the business owner of A.V. Enviornmental Technologies, providing percolation for onsite wastewater treatment systems or septic systems in several counties.
“I paid him $38,000 to prepare a complete system that would work in a flood zone for our facility,” Silver said.
Silver said Layne prepared a 71-page report indicating Silver could purchase and install a new septic system for those RVs, which would cost about $300,000. Silver said he’s willing to pay whatever the cost to ensure people can stay in their homes.
Silver also contracted other companies, such as Fruit Growers Laboratory, to conduct environmental analyses of drinking water and waste water to ensure no contamination was happening.
The county said no. Silver then said he’d obtain the services for a septic pump trunk, and he said the county denied that option, too.
According to Silver, he resolved any issues regarding environmental impacts with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In a letter sent to Silver on Sept. 14, 2020, the Department of Fish and Wildlife notified him that his RV park is not subject to Fish and Game Code section 1602, which requires an entity to notify the Department of Fish and Wildlife before commencing an activity that will divert or obstruct the natural flow, or change or use any material from the bed, channel or bank of any river, stream or lake.
According to Krause, Silver provided HCD staff with some documents that were not complete or authentic that indicated that the county had approved the expansion of the park, which is why they reissued the permit to allow for the permitted 47 spots.
“Back to my point about HCD doing our due diligence, when we contacted the county regarding those documents, it was communicated to us that was not the case that the county had approved the expansion of the park,” Krause said. “Our staff completed the process of verifying the accuracy of the information in our database, which confirmed that the park was not approved for expansion, and it only approved for 47 spots.”
HCD is not the agency that takes people out of mobile home parks, Krause said. That’s between the park owner and park residents, he added.
“HCD has no authority to close a park or process evictions that would remove somebody from a park. So, we’re undergoing enforcement action to require the park to correct their violations, which is the unpermitted expansion of the park,” Krause said. “And it’s incumbent upon them to do whatever action is required to bring the park back into compliance.”
“We’ll continue to work with the park owner and the county as appropriate to review, permit applications, approve and issue permits and perform inspections in the park once the county does, in fact, if they do approve that expansion,” he added.
Silver said he accepted the permit only allowing for 47 spots because he feels that he has tried to work with them, but the agencies keep saying no.
“They’re still talking about that even after we go down to 47, they still want a new EPA plan. I’m actually wondering if we do get down to 47, will that satisfy them,” Silver said. “Three other parks nearby closed down. They just didn’t want to deal with them anymore, but that’s not going to happen here.”
Tenants’ fears and 10-year RV park rule
Cali Lake RV Resort tenants are worried, agreed Michele Savino and George Freeman, who are married and general managers of the park.
According to Savino, everyone at the RV park has a similar story — they faced challenges, they needed a place to call home to face the road ahead.
“My personal story is I’ve been here for four years with my husband and my daughter,” Savino said. “My daughter was unfortunately a victim of a sexual assault by a family member, who we were living with at the time.”
“We ended up on the streets overnight. We had nowhere to go, and we were in our car for a while. We finally saved up enough and we got an older RV [a 1993 model].”
She and her family tried to find a place that would allow them to live in their RV, but none would take them in because of the “10-year RV rule.” According to Krause, it is not a state law or regulation, rather a local governing body decision.
“If local governments choose to adopt an ordinance that prohibits installation of manufactured homes that are older than a certain number of years, they can do that legally,” Krause said. “But they would have to apply it broadly for all parks, not just one park or even private parcels. Even private parcels of land outside of parks, they can do that.”
Park owners can turn away people who live or own an RV that was made more than 10 years before staying at RV parks. The rule is often invoked to prevent people from camping at RV parks in older vehicles, according to Savino.
“While at the time I didn’t know about the 10-year rule, most RV parks…won’t accept you,” Savino said. “We got this RV, and we’re going to go to an RV park and then get back on our feet.”
Months later, they found Cali Lake RV Resort. Now, they help run the place.
“We do the same thing for everybody. People call us all the time saying, ‘I have a really old RV, but I really want to get my family off the streets,’” Savino said. “We have a spot for you, and a lot of times they become a part of this community.
“There’s so many people here that are like me — that have some kind of story that they need somebody to give them a chance.”
Cali Lake RV Resort doesn’t conduct credit checks. Silver said it’s not his policy.
“People change, and people need chances,” Savino said. “If more places like our place existed, there’d be a lot less people on the streets right now.”
Anthony Ferguson lived at Cali Lake RV Park for 30 to 35 years, he said, before Silver purchased the park. It’s his home, and many people, like himself, have no other place to go.
“I drove a motorcycle from here to Van Nuys Airport every day of the week, for 35 years, as an aircraft mechanic,” Ferguson said. “You want us on the street like they are in L.A.? That’s not good.”
According to Ferguson, the people at Cali Lake are “mighty fine people” who help one another out. Ferguson talked about his neighbor — a woman with four kids, and no home, until they got to the park.
“The lady has two children that are in junior high school. I’ve been taking those girls to the bus stop or to school for the last four years because she works as a nurse,” he added.
Freeman mentioned there are about 50 to 60 children living at the RV park with their families. According to Freeman, these kids go to schools in the Santa Clarita Valley and these parents work in the valley, too.
RV park tenants are afraid of being on the streets again, according to Freeman.
Judy Wood-Santiago is one of those residents.
Wood-Santiago lives in an older RV model, more than 15 years old. She lives with her two adult daughters and her husband.
Wood-Santiago has a disability that keeps her in a chair and her husband just had hip surgery and recently lost his state disability, she said.
“I can’t stand for more than two or three minutes and I can’t walk more than 3 or 4 feet. And if I had to leave this behind [her chair] because I didn’t have any way to take it with me, I’d probably be in a hospice somewhere,” Wood-Santiago said.
“My two daughters are applying for disability for PTSD and several other issues,” she added. “My youngest is 20 and my middle daughter who lives with me is 25 going on 26. Between the three of us we make one person.”
According to Wood-Santiago, they were homeless, then they found a place at Cali Lake RV Resort.
“It’s the most inclusive community that I’ve ever lived in,” she added.
Tenants are doing everything they can to save anyone from having to leave the RV park. According to Silver, several residents spoke during public comment at a recent L.A. County Board of Supervisors meeting asking for help.
Savino and Freeman hope something will change before Jan. 1, 2023. If nothing changes before then, they along with Silver will have some difficult decisions to make.
“What right do we get to play God with people’s lives like that?” Savino said. “I feel like crap just thinking about who should stay or go. I don’t want to do that. I shouldn’t have to be in that position to have to decide that.”