Martina Hamilton and Noam Shimler thought they found their dream home, on the bluffs overlooking Highway 41 and the hills of Madera County.
“It’s kind of hidden. It was nice because it was very private and we actually had a great time living here and enjoying it,” Hamilton said of the home they’ve owned for 15 years.
But a construction project producing a huge dirt mound has turned the homeowners into litigants.
The project belongs to one of the most beloved and respected institutions in the Central Valley — Valley Children’s Hospital.
Dirt Piled from Basin Project
Hamilton and Shimler applaud VCH for taking care of sick children. That’s not the issue, they say. The problem is a giant pile of dirt.
VCH is building a stormwater basin and making other infrastructure improvements south of the main hospital. All the dirt they have dug out is stored next to the home of Hamilton and Shimler.
Their lawsuit says the pile — 14 feet high and encompassing 366,000 square feet, about 22 football fields — towers over Hamilton’s and Shimler’s fence.
Shimler said the land used to be an empty field.
“The dirt has been blowing, drifting, settling all over the property of our house, cars, our yard. We are unable to freely open our windows for two years now. I have to clean my house every single day. Vacuum, wipe the floor, wipe the surfaces because dirt is just seeping in. We can’t keep our cars clean for more than a day.”
Says Hamilton, who works in financial services: “Our yard is filthy. We are not inviting friends over. We are not using our yards, sitting outside, cooking outside.”
They say the unwelcome dirt has decreased their property value.
“We are asking for them to remove this pile of dirt away from our home. We want to be able to open our windows,” Hamilton said.
“You feel that your rights are taken,” Shimler, who is in the backyard decor business, said. “We feel that (VCH) treated us extremely poorly.”
The couple filed the suit in 2021 for a private nuisance and trespassing. They are represented by Lenden Webb.
The trial is set for Oc. 23 in Madera County Superior Court, with Judge Brian Austin presiding.
VCH declined to comment for this story. In its legal response, the hospital denied allegations made in the lawsuit, saying it was in compliance with permits granted.
Did County Properly Notify?
On a hot summer day earlier this month, the gigantic dirt mound remains. It is just feet away from the fence that divides the couple’s property against VCH. The mound is higher than the fence, and no mitigation measure — such as a vegetation cover — are present.
“It’s kind of ironic because their CEO (Todd Suntrapak) in his interview likes to talk about doing the right thing. And I don’t know how this mountain of dirt in front of a home is doing the right thing for their neighbors,” Hamilton said.
The project required a permit from Madera County.
Hamilton and Shimler said the county never notified them of VCH’s plans.
“One of the surrounding neighbors had contacted the county Planning Department to request reasoning as to why the residents never received appropriate notice of the impending Project, and a County Clerk had admitted that their failure to provide notice had been an ‘oversight,’ ” the lawsuit said.
Matthew Treber, Madera County’s chief of development services, denied those claims. He said county grading permits were approved in 2014, even though the project didn’t start until 2021.
“The neighborhood was all notified. It was published in the newspapers,” Treber said. “Everything that’s occurring and has occurred out there has been permitted and in compliance with their conditions of approval.”
The county issued the grading permit, setting hours of construction, and limiting activity when there was high wind. Treber said VCH also needed to hydroseed the dirt mound — planting seeds to prevent erosion.
Tarp or Other Barrier Not Required: Madera County
Mitigation measures such as a tarp or some kind of barrier were not required, Treber said.
The civil improvement plan filed with the county in 2020 — and included in court documents filed by the plaintiffs — contains “dust control notes.” The notes specify mitigation methods such as spray water, tarpaulins, dust palliatives, or planting as options during construction.
The lawsuit said none of those measures was implemented.
VCH also had to file a dust control plan with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.
The plan, filed by VCH and its contractor, said it would use water or dust suppressants, as well as covering storage piles with tarps or similar materials.
The air district says VCH is in compliance. Ryan Hayashi, deputy air pollution control officer, says they last inspected the site on July 13.
“We performed testing to confirm that the soil is stabilized, meaning there’s not fine particles that get generated from wind and other things,” Hayashi said. “If you maintain a stabilized surface, then you shouldn’t have the issues of the windblown dust and opacity issues.”
Hayashi said the air district requires VCH to maintain a stabilized surface but does not specify what mitigation measure to use.
No resident ever complained about the dust blowing to the air district, Hayashi said.
Problems with Sharing Private Road
Hamilton and Shimler, as well as two neighbors, live on a private road that runs from Cobb Ranch Road and behind the hospital. The helipad that transfers sick children is also on the road.
The road is owned by VCH, but an easement grants the residents the right to use the road. The road is paved, but narrow — only 10 feet wide at its most limited spot. A three-point turn is not an option.
That makes driving by pedestrians a challenge. And, the neighbors say that the only pedestrians using the road are VCH employees on their breaks.
“It’s hard to share a road at, some place is 10 feet wide, with, pedestrians. It’s completely hazardous,” Shimler said, adding that VHC employees have been hostile to them.
The couple is concerned that they could be exposed to liability if there is an accident, even if they are not involved — such as a slip-and-fall by a pedestrian moving to the side of the road to avoid a car.
In a letter sent by the neighbors’ attorney to VCH, it asked the hospital to prevent bikers and pedestrians from using the road. It also accused the hospital of using the road for construction equipment, when the road should only be used for residents coming and going to their homes.
The three residents on the private road filed a lawsuit — separate from the litigation over the dirt pile — about the use of the road. The case went to mediation, with an inconclusive decision.
VCH sent Hamilton and Shimler a letter dated Feb. 6, 2023, saying that it plans to construct a walking trail for employees and patients along the ponding basins.
Couple Accuse Sheriff Deputies of Harassment
Hamilton and Shimler said they have also been harassed by Madera County deputies, at the behest of VCH.
“I got intercepted by a sheriff (deputy) and he tells me that people complain that I drive too fast and so forth. And I explained to him that I do not drive too fast,” Shimler said.
Hamilton also said she was pulled over on the road. The deputy allegedly told her she was “on the list.”
That phrase offended Shimler.
“The word ‘list’ was used by the Nazis against the Jewish people. And I’m a son of a Holocaust survivor, and this is terrible,” Shimler said. “And to this day, it does a number on me.”
Hamilton and Shimler complained to a sheriff’s supervisor, and the issue was settled without further incident.
“The damage is done,” Shimler said.
The Madera County Sheriff’s Office does have a record of stopping Shimler, but not Hamilton. Shimler was stopped for failing to stop at a stop sign in the area.
A sheriff’s department spokesperson said no one in the office recalled any conversation about “a list.”
Shimler and Hamilton also questioned whether deputies are allowed to patrol a private road, and if they did so at the behest of VCH.
“At one point during 2021, VCH requested patrols of the road due to perceived dangerous driving that was reportedly endangering VCH employees. After the dispute of ownership was raised, the Sheriff’s Office suspended routine traffic enforcement in that area. We were not able to clearly determine if the roadway in question was private or public at that time,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Kayla Gates told GV Wire.
VCH reimburses the county for deputies who patrol the area near the hospital.
Gates said deputies can enforce laws on private property, and can be dispatched to private property “to determine the level of response or mitigation needed.”
Flooding Also a Problem
Shimler said that the pile of dirt also caused flooding during last winter’s rains. He says when they complained to VCH, the hospital told them that wind caused the flooding.
“Before when you didn’t have the mountain (dirt pile), rain comes and disperses all over equally,” Shimler said.
Even in other rainy years in the past, flooding never happened before, they said.
However the case is resolved, Treber with the county had a suggestion.
“I would certainly always urge folks to be good neighbors on both sides,” Treber said.