For more than five years, the city of San Bernardino has been trying to nudge Janet Summerfield to repair the roof of her hillside home near the San Manuel Indian Reservation and scale back the nearby weeds and vegetation.
Summerfield, 75, has lived in the 3,200-square-foot home on Hemlock Drive for more than 30 years. The neighborhood is known as “Holcomb Hill,” named after late San Bernardino Mayor Robert “Bob” Holcomb, a developer who built his dream home on the hill in the 1960s.
But Summerfield’s home, valued at nearly $800,000 on Zillow, has fallen into a state of disrepair. The wood-exposed roof is covered with black tarpaulin, and other unsafe conditions at the residence prompted the city to declare it unsafe.
After more than four years of trying to get Summerfield to bring her house into compliance, the city sued her in March 2021 and requested that a judge appoint a receiver to assume control of the property and rehabilitate it.
On Aug. 11, Summerfield countersued both the city and San Bernardino Superior Court in federal court, alleging violation of her constitutional rights against warrantless searches and due process in what has become a legal battle over private property rights vs. personal and public safety.
Summerfield named San Bernardino Superior Court as a defendant because a judge, during a July 18 hearing, ordered Summerfield to meet with city officials at her home prior to the next hearing scheduled for Sept. 16. And that, according to Summerfield and her attorney, Peter Gibbons, constitutes an order for a warrantless search of her property.
A Superior Court spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
“I continue to enjoy living in my home of 34 years and have suffered no harm from doing so. No member of the public has lawful access to my home such that they could be harmed either,” Summerfield said in a declaration filed in U.S. District Court in Riverside. She did not respond to repeated telephone calls requesting an interview.
Gibbons equates the city’s practices to extortion and racketeering, alleging the city is trying to suck the $600,000 in equity from his client’s home.
“It looks and smells and feels like a racket,” said Gibbons, a Nevada-based attorney, in a telephone interview. “This is a shakedown. I think we’re going to change the complaint to include racketeering and corrupt influence.”
Code enforcement crackdown
City officials maintain Summerfield has been nonresponsive to repeated demands by code enforcement officers to bring her home up to code. She has repeatedly said improvements were forthcoming, only to fall back on excuses when they were not done, city spokesman Jeff Kraus said in an email.
A complaint to the city in May 2017 alleging that Summerfield’s home was a “bad fire hazard” prompted the first code enforcement callout to her property, followed by the city’s subsequent five-year effort to get Summerfield to comply with its orders.
In July 2017, the city slapped Summerfield with a notice citing a laundry list of code violations, including a defective or deteriorated roof; weeds, dry brush and overgrown vegetation; drainage issues; accumulation of rubbish and garbage; and hazardous and unsanitary conditions, according to the city’s lawsuit.
In the three years that followed, Summerfield was issued two additional notices of violation, according to the city’s lawsuit, A code enforcement officer first noticed the black tarp “clamped down” on her roof on April 12, 2018.
“The property has been visited by code staff 16 times. Both the city and the court have been very patient, with no positive results to show for any concession granted the property owner,” Kraus said.
Also in 2017, it was reported there was runoff of “some unknown brown liquid coming from the property and draining into the public storm drain,” Kraus said in an email.
In March 2021, the city informed Summerfield it intended to seek a court order appointing a receiver on the property. Twelve days later, the city filed its motion in San Bernardino Superior Court.
“The property is a public nuisance and many of these violations are hazardous in nature, presenting a threat to the life, health and safety of the occupants,” according to the city’s lawsuit.
In her declaration filed in court, Summerfield claims a series of unfortunate events has thwarted her efforts to make the needed repairs to her home. She said she has gone through three contractors in the past five years.
The first contractor she hired canceled the contract after being diagnosed with cancer, she said. She fired the second contractor due to unacceptable work, and by the time Summerfield hired a third contractor, the coronavirus pandemic struck, delaying work when some of the crew were hospitalized and others forced to self-quarantine.
“The architect/construction supervisor died of Covid in December 2020,” Summerfield said in her declaration.
Citing 52-year-old changes in state housing law, Gibbons claims the city’s Municipal Code sections — the ones the city claims Summerfield is violating — are unenforceable because they are not uniform with state health and safety codes, and that state law preempts municipal law.
“As shocking as it may seem, each and every San Bernardino Municipal Code section alleged in the complaint is void and unenforceable,” Gibbons said in a motion filed in federal court.
Both Summerfield and Gibbons deny Summerfield’s home is a threat to her personal safety, let alone others.
Kraus said the city has yet to be served with the federal lawsuit, and therefore he could not comment on Gibbons’ legal arguments contained in it.
“At this time, we haven’t seen it, so we aren’t in a position to speak to the specifics,” Kraus said. “That said, in all my years in municipal government, I have never seen nor heard of a code enforcement case going to, or being heard in, federal court.”
Aside from Summerfield’s setbacks involving contractors, Gibbons said her late husband died in a plane crash, and she’s been having a difficult time coping with that ever since.
Ellison “Bud” Summerfield was piloting a Pilatus PC-12 on March 22, 2009, en route from Redlands Municipal Airport to Bert Mooney Airport in Butte, Montana. He was flying three families, including seven children all under the age of 10, to Bozeman for a skiing trip when Summerfield lost control of the plane and it nosedived into Holy Cross Cemetery, killing all 14 people aboard. The crash occurred 500 feet from the Bert Mooney Airport runway.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Summerfield was at fault for the crash. He failed to put icing inhibitor in the fuel before takeoff to prevent it from clogging up when flying in freezing temperatures. Summerfield also failed to take appropriate action by not diverting course and landing at the nearest airport upon discovering the problem, the NTSB concluded in its report.
Reached by telephone, a neighbor of Summerfield’s who asked to not be identified expressed safety concerns for Summerfield, mainly because she climbs atop her roof to secure the black tarpaulin herself.
“Is it a concern? Yes?” the neighbor said. “Every time, prior to a storm, she’s out there securing the plastic down. We can hear her pounding. I think most of my concerns are for her — just her getting up on the roof.”
Asked about fire danger, the neighbor said she wasn’t too concerned about it, but did say the home that previously occupied her property burned to the ground in the 2003 Old Fire. She said she and her husband subsequently bought the property and built their house on it.
“I don’t even know how the fire didn’t jump over to hers,” she said, referring to Summerfield. “It was pretty much hit or miss. I don’t know how hers survived.”