Less than 2 miles from Yosemite National Park, El Portal Trailer Park sits alongside the Merced River in a tranquil mountain valley surrounded by oak and pine trees.
After spring showers, Luke Harbin could sometimes see a natural waterfall off the canyon walls from his backyard.
But not anymore.
Over the weekend, Harbin, his mother Lynn, and a dozen of their neighbors packed up and said goodbye to the place, some of which they have called home for decades. All worked for the National Park Service or a concession company such as a hotel.
The Park Service, which owns the land on which the trailer park sits near Highway 140, told residents in December that the federal government would close the site because of deteriorating overhead power lines. Residents were given 90 days to leave.
For years, residents have been mired in a quagmire between federal and local jurisdiction. They leased the land from the Park Service, paid the federal government for electricity, and applied for remodeling permits from Mariposa County.
In October, the Park Service announced that utility company Pacific Gas & Electric would inspect power lines at the trailer park. The federal agency also informed residents that the area is set 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 vacate.
“We were all just kind of looking at each other because they’ve tried to kick us out so many times in the past. We were like, ‘Well, maybe this is a joke,'” said Luke Harbin, 32, when reached by phone. “The park service is constantly changing their ideas and plans for the area.”
The decision to close El Portal Trailer Park was not easy, Yosemite Park Supt. Cecily Muldoon told The Times. Multiple surveys of power lines in the area, including assessments by PG&E, revealed a real fire hazard.
“As you know, all of California is Tierra del Fuego, but this is absolutely Tierra del Fuego,” Muldoon said. “We were very concerned about the danger to human life.”
For years, residents of the El Portal caravan park were informed of other projects that would have repurposed the land and closed the park, but none of these plans ever came to fruition. In 2014, the National Park Service released the Merced River Plan, which serves as a guide to managing the river and outlining plans to remove the trailer park at El Portal. But residents thought there was more time.
“Plans have been in place for decades,” said Greg Magruder, a member of the El Portal Planning Advisory Committee, a group that works with the county to address local issues. “[The Park Service are] great at planning and really sucks at executing those plans.”
Magruder, who is retired, lives outside the trailer park but leases his property from the National Park Service. He says many of the residents are employees who have worked for the park service or one of the concessionaires for decades. Though Muldoon would have liked to give residents at least a year’s notice before their leases were terminated, the electrical hazard accelerated that schedule.
“We really had a duty to act,” Muldoon said. “As the seriousness of this electrical hazard came to light, we worried every day. From the moment we found this out until we depowered it a few days ago. Just a misplaced spark and a fire started there could have cost lives. We might get bad press now, but the really bad result would be if someone out there got hurt.”
Muldoon described the one-on-one meetings she had with tenants as difficult and a “fundamentally sad situation.”
Over the next few years, the caravan park will be transformed from a residential area into an administrative site that can house the new campsite. Repairing the power lines would not have been given such a high priority given the other infrastructure projects surrounding Yosemite National Park.
The steps the federal agency has taken to remove 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 looked into compensating residents but “didn’t find any viable legal authority.”
Robert Cortez, an attorney for Central California Legal Services Inc., represents two former residents of the trailer park and usually helps residents fight illegal incarceration or evictions. But Cortez said residents of the trailer park weren’t technically served with an eviction notice. The December letter terminated the tenant’s lease and made no mention of any repurposing plans for the site, Cortez said.
Typically, such 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 textbook definition of eviction, where a landlord makes a property so deplorable that they can no longer live there.
Valet shut off power to the trailer park over the weekend and installed a new fence around the property. Residents were also threatened with a six-month jail term or a $5,000 fine for trespassing and illegal residence on state lands.
“I think that’s constructive Expulsion. The landlord didn’t physically pull anyone off their property,” Cortez said. But the landlord in this case successfully removed the tenants.
Lynn Harbin has lived in her home for 38 years. Their son Luke grew up there and moved back home a few years ago.
Luke Harbin packed his family’s belongings into his car on Wednesday. The whole experience was traumatizing for him and his mother, who broke down crying during a meeting with the parking service manager. They said staff were unfazed by the fact that they were about to lose their home.
Luke Harbin planned to pack his things and store them 100 miles away in a storage unit in Fresno. Lynn and several other former trailer park residents were offered rooms in a staff dormitory through a franchisee. But the same offer was not made to Luke.
“I’m staying with a buddy and I’m staying in my car,” he said.
https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-03-18/yosemite-trailer-park-residents-forced-to-leave-over-aging-power-lines Aging power lines are forcing residents of trailer parks to leave