By Sonja Bjelland and Alicia Robinson
NORCO – The weedy, rubble-covered parcel on Mountain Avenue does not have a proper house, but it is still home to Paul and David Corson.
The brothers, who have lived all of their 60-plus years on the same plot, saw the house their father built bulldozed in January, after the city of Norco had the house condemned through a court order.
Now they want to build a house, but no one seems to agree on whether that is allowed or even possible.
The dispute pits the right of longtime residents to make a home on their property against the city’s right to guide future development.
“We figure we still have the right (to build),” David Corson said. “We’re the land owners. That gives us the right.”
The latest debate continues a history of contentious relations between the city and the Corsons, and it is forcing the brothers to navigate a government system whose authority they largely reject and have previously ignored.
Paul Corson, 62, and David Corson, 64, have had trouble with the city dating back to at least the 1990s, when they filed a lawsuit to block the city from ever using eminent domain to take their property — something the city said it never had the power to do.
The brothers accumulated more than 20 years’ worth of old tires, bottles and electronic parts for what they said was a recycling business. Norco officials said it was a public nuisance and a fire hazard, and in 2005 the city won a court judgment to get the parcel cleaned up.
The house, built in the 1920s, had no running water or electricity, and a bee colony had taken root inside. It was deemed unsafe and torn down under the supervision of Mark Adams, a court-appointed attorney.
Last week, the brothers stood at the front of the parcel, near a pile of tires and a trash barrel containing electronic gear still wrapped in plastic, while Adams toured the property.
The open field behind where the Corsons stood is vastly changed from a year ago, when crews hauled out more than 1,100 tons of items the brothers collected. It is now dotted with an occasional old sneaker, a small pile of baby food jars, a tire here and flattened aluminum can there.
In the midday sun, Adams recalled the glut of salvaged items that filled most of the property.
“It was just 12 feet high, all the way back,” Adams said as he walked around the weedy parcel.
Whether they can rebuild on the 5.5-acre property is unclear. The head city planner and mayor have argued that the industrial zoning of the property would prohibit new construction of a home.
“That whole area was always viewed as being industrial property,” Mayor Frank Hall said. “I think putting more residential in there is probably not a smart thing to do.”
The City Council must still vote on whether to allow the Corsons to rebuild, though no vote is scheduled, City Manager Jeff Allred said.
However, City Attorney John Harper said whether the Corsons rebuild is out of the city’s control — and must be decided by Adams.
For his part, Adams said last week that the issue might soon be moot because if the Corsons don’t pay off the $432,000 debt from the cleanup and other costs, he may have to foreclose on the property.
Adams said he offered to bring a modular home onto the parcel for the Corsons to live in, but they weren’t interested. They have never appeared in court on the case and they haven’t responded to repeated requests to settle the cleanup debt, Adams said.
“Where have they been for the last 18 months?” Adams asked. “Trying to position it as the government’s in their way now is just not credible to me.”
The brothers say they don’t think the cleanup and demolition of the old house were necessary. Paul Corson, with a Jack Daniels ball cap on his head and a bushy mustache on his weathered face, said a structural engineer said the house was fine.
They’re still unhappy that the sheep and geese they kept on the property were taken, and they said some of David’s gardening equipment was hauled away in the cleanup.
They want to build a house like the one that was knocked down, they said, but even the rocks their parents originally used from the property to build the fireplace are no longer there.
“They’ve taken all our rights and just threw them away,” David Corson said.
‘Protecting Our Land’
Since the house was demolished, the Corsons have lived in a recreational vehicle that sits at one corner of the property, with a cluster of car batteries out front providing the power and a hose coming out of one wall, apparently the only sewage system.
A short distance away is David’s garden, where he grows organic produce and sunflowers.
“We’re still here and we’re still protecting our land,” David Corson said.
The brothers said they think somebody wants their land, and that’s why there have been so many obstacles to them rebuilding.
Adams said the Corsons’ property could be worth as much as $2 million.
But the monetary value of the property does not seem to tempt them. Asked whether they’d sell if they could get several million dollars, Paul Corson said simply, “We were born here.”
The brothers haven’t decided what to do if they aren’t allowed to rebuild. They say their parents moved here to enjoy a freedom that may now be taken away from them.
“It’s like they’re turning against people that were here before the city, and that’s kind of a crime,” David Corson said.
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