The Man Who Can’t Do Business
by Bruce Anderson, February 1, 2012
The shy, sandy-haired man doesn’t match the groans and apocalyptic comment his name elicits in the halls of local government. “Total psycho,” says a program administrator. “Most likely to go postal,” another official says. But in the wan winter sun of a rainless December, the man himself, speaking in a soft monotone that he punctuates with rueful chuckles, calmly and sequentially describes the events that he says “have pushed my back to the wall.”
The root of Mr. Zimmerer’s difficulties arise from Mendocino County’s inexplicable re-zone of his busy acre in Redwood Valley, literal feet from the old Northwestern Pacific Railroad tracks and just across the street from Redwood Valley’s industrial park. The train, before it ceased service in 1967, once ran twice a day in both directions from Eureka to southern Marin County; it made regular stops at Zimmerer’s ancient barn fronting School Way. How his parcel came to be re-zoned as residential cannot be explained even by the people who did it, none of whom any longer work with the Mendocino County Department of Planning and Building.
What hasn't been lost is the arbitrariness of that decision because Zimmerer’s acre exists in a preponderantly industrial neighborhood, and always had existed in an industrial neighborhood until somehow the County decided Zimmerer's acre should be zoned residential.
And how about that acre? Where one man sees beauty and utility, another sees a post-industrial jumble — a junkyard — which is how a County code enforcement officer has described the property. Zimmerer argues that what may look like junk to the Planning and Building Department is stored equipment he can either sell, rent or use himself when he works as a contractor specializing in water systems.
“The County tax collector,” Zimmerer indignantly points out, “sees it as money. They audit my taxes every year and charge me one percent on my equipment!”
The County apparently sees no contradiction in making money off Zimmerer's equipment while simultaneously fining him for keeping it on his property.
Zimmerer views his equipment as the means to earn a living, but says every time he tries to practice free enterprise on his acre the County soon appears to shut him down, red tag and fine him. And the fines are mounting while Zimmerer insists he’s the victim of “selective code enforcement. I can show you properties like mine all over the county, right in the middle of vineyards and all kinds of places, and the County leaves them alone.”
The complaints alleging that Mr. Z’s acre is unsightly don’t mention that it isn’t fully visible, and not really visible at all unless you know where to look for it from nearby and heavily traveled School Way. One wonders to whom it is unsightly? One also wonders why, when Zimmerer bought the place, which was then two-and-a-half acres (his daughter bought a piece of it for her home), that it hadn’t been noted that it contained at least 10 abandoned vehicles and some 25 boats but never had been abated. But when Zimmerer built a concealing berm and fence planted in berry bushes on his east side he was red-tagged for violating the County’s fence code. The County said the east barrier was a couple of feet too high.
Zimmerer wants to operate a feed and grain business out of his old barn. Historically, that’s what the barn was used for. Before he bought the property he says, “the County Building Department gave me an engineered drawing, wet-stamped that the County has approved a feed store here. I went to the Savings Bank and showed them what I wanted to do. The bank said it looked very good as a project.” And sold him a mortgage. Zimmerer says he even had someone fly over Redwood Valley to check the neighborhood for animals to see if a feed store was viable in the area. It was. Redwood Valley being semi-rural, and many of its residents keeping farm animals, a feed store would save them the long round-trip to Ukiah for feed and grain.
“But after we bought,” Zimmerer maintains, “the County claimed they’d changed the zoning to residential. I asked the planner if he’s ever seen residences with loading docks, three of them here. My mom’s stepdad used to drive the train. They used to bring feed in and offload it right here. Why the zoning change? I believe it was a direct attack on me. They even duped the tax collector. They had the land listed as industrial.”
And Zimmerer, a man of parts who also holds two contractor’s licenses, believes that the direct attack on his business plans coincided with his departure from the Sheriff’s Department. “I quit but I never really got over the five years I worked at the jail. My badge number was 2470. I bet they’ve gone through at least a hundred people since then.” He goes on to describe several traumatizing experiences he suffered working as a custodial officer, including one that occurred during a power failure when he was locked in a cell with an inmate.
From his harrowing work at the County Jail, Zimmerer applied for and received partial disability status. At his disability hearing Zimmerer was determined to be “63% disabled.” Although the precipitating event, he says, “was a willful safety violation” on the part of the Sheriff's Department for which the County was fined by the state's Occupational and Health Administration, “I have not received any service retirement-related disability,” Zimmerer continues to agitate “for what I am owed.” He is also convinced that the County is retaliating against him for filing a worker's compensation claim for his injury. The County does, however, pay for his doctor and medication.
Mr. Z is an unlikely cop. He seems much too gentle, unassertive. The harsh characterizations of him as a crazy guy seem not only unfair but untrue. “I went back to construction contracting but I found out my medical problems were more serious than I’d thought. I bought this place on the assumption I could do business here. The Bank of Mendocino would not have financed me if they didn’t think I could do business here.” Zimmerer ticks off a series of remnant but red-tagged enterprises. “They wouldn’t even let me create a wet area for my ducks, and I can’t sell the eggs from my chickens.”
A number of ducks are serenely paddling around an impressively deep but muddy pond that would normally be replenished by the winter rains that this year have not appeared. “It’s really a big pit,” Zimmerer explains. “I call it the Mother Ducker Pond. The County calls it ‘the duck pit.’ It’s a hole in the ground. I have 30 catfish my grandkids can fish for, and they can feed the ducks. And there’s two small sailboats and a sand beach. To support my chickens and ducks, I go to Sacramento to get natural rice that has fallen on the road. I feed the animals out of this, and I get it free, a thousand pounds or a pick-up load. When I spread it out here wild geese will land here.”
Not that anybody is likely to confuse the pond tableau with Palm Beach, but Zimmerer says his ten grandkids have a heckuva good time at Mother Ducker Pond. “It appears to them that there’s everything a small lake should have. I’ve had to move my fish twice and my ducks had to spend a summer in a Doughboy pool because the government want to fine me again for them, too.”
Not far from the summer playground for his grandkids, rests a bunker-like metal trailer designed by the military to survive airdrops and, once on the ground, safely endure frontal assaults. This impenetrably secure structure once served Zimmerer as the container for an indoor marijuana grow. “I was arrested for growing pot in it,” Zimmerer explains the uniquely secure combat headquarters. “Never made a dime off it. We hundred percent donated our pot. I have a 215 card and two doctor prescriptions.”
Supervisor Carrie Brown, soon after she was elected, was startled one morning when Zimmerer appeared at her Potter Valley door when the supervisor came out of her house to go to work. Mrs. Brown invited Zimmerer in for coffee and, she recalls, they had an uneventful exchange of views.
“Carrie Brown, my supervisor,” Zimmerer maintains, “is a very nice person, but as a supervisor she has no clue. I’m in competition with the Farm Bureau and she lobbies for them. I was doing very good selling my hay when they shut that down. I’m being treated like a criminal but I’m not a criminal. I’m 53-years-old and I’ve been married for more than 30 years. I have two daughters and lots of grandkids in this community, but I’ve always had to work on the road because, now, I can’t work out of my own property.”
Supervisor Brown says simply, “I feel for him and his family, but I can’t talk about the situation because there is pending legal action.”
Zimmerer, however, expresses a particular enmity for now retired code enforcement officer Jim McCleary. “He goes around snooping in people’s yards. He's told a lot of lies about me. He fined me six thousand dollars, which they put on my property tax bill. I can’t pay it. I don’t have the money.”
And the County keeps piling on.
“I moved my mobile home eight hundred feet where I put it on a concrete pad,” Zimmerer says. “The County won't sign off on my home although everything is in the correct spots. They require you to get an engineered drawing to put in a fence post. I know a lot of people, One Percenters some of them, who have more red tags than Macy's. Do they go after these people? McCleary told me that this is called 'selective enforcement, and I chose you.' The County is always crying for money, and my feed store would provide two full-time jobs, but they laughed at me and won't give me a permit.”
The new director of Planning and Building, Roger Mobley, who seems much more conciliatory than his predecessors, sums up the Zimmerer matter this way: “It’s gone past red tags into an order to abate, which is where we are now. We want to get people to comply without going to a more structured legal process, but we haven’t been able to do that so far. We feel there’s still a chance we can resolve it. I can tell you that at one point he did try to get it rezoned industrial but for some reason he never completed the process.
Mobley conceded that there “are a lot of these properties [in the County] and legal non-conforming uses can be allowed. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of complaints about that property, but we have had complaints.”
As it stands, Zimmerer has not gotten into voluntary compliance. The County continues to insist he is operating an unpermitted junk yard and placed liens against Zimmerer's property totaling just over ten thousand dollars that were cut roughly in half when Zimmerer appealed in June of 2010.
Representing the County is a pleasant, reasonable woman named Terry Gross of the Mendocino County Counsel’s office. She says of Zimmerer, “Although he’s not always the easiest person to deal with, he’s not unsympathetic. We are open to mediation.”
Zimmerer sees his situation as far more perilous. “They’re denying me a living. They’re trying to destroy me. I’m broke. I’m living off my SSI, which I try to supplement however I can. I can do a lot of different things, but I can’t be around people much.”