Willard Gabbard lives in a quaint, 32-foot, 1980s-era Holiday Rambler that’s parked in a makeshift RV park next to the Yard Birds shopping mall.
He moved there in 2009 just shortly after a big flood, having been lured away from Seattle to the park and its cheap monthly dues of only $300 a month. Gabbard, 85, is retired and enjoys the park’s location next to the shopping mall and its iconic bird monument.
So he was surprised when he awoke Tuesday morning this week to find a notice from the City of Chehalis spelling out an eviction.
“It was a surprise. I’ve been here all this time,” he told The Chronicle on Wednesday afternoon from the RV park.
Gabbard said he plans on staying, but he’s not as sure for the dozen other occupants of the site. He said he’s retained a lawyer and is going to fight it out and see if there’s any way he can remain at the site.
Like some of the residents at the RV spot, a few of whom work inside Yard Birds, options for finding an affordable place to live are few and far between.
“You either die or get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t have a place to go. The mobile home park, there’s a six-month wait there. Turns out you can’t just park (your trailers) anywhere either.”
The City of Chehalis appeared to put its foot down on Tuesday morning when it posted a number of notices on the Yard Birds building and RV park detailing city code and public nuisance violations.
“The City of Chehalis believes that there are existing violations within Yard Birds that pose a significant risk to health, safety and life. Enter at your own risk,” read a notice posted in both English and Spanish at each of the building’s entrances.
The city has alleged the owners and operators of Yard Birds have violated building code requirements and sprinkler requirements, created a public nuisance by allowing people to live on the property for more than 14 days, failed to gather permits for building alterations and created an unsafe environment by using its weaker second floor as a storage area.
According to a notice of violation and order to abate issued by the city Tuesday morning, Yard Birds was required to conduct the following within 24 hours: Restrict access to the second floor, discontinue all residential use of storage units, discontinue use of the building for “large public gatherings,” begin the eviction of long term residents in the RV lot and post the “enter at own your own risk” signs at entrances.
Those 24-hour notice requirements appeared to be satisfied when The Chronicle stopped by Wednesday afternoon.
“The city spent the better part of a year attempting to get your voluntary compliance without success,” read the order to abate. “Unfortunately, the violations have now reached a point such that they pose a serious and immediate threat to everyone entering the building.”
Chehalis says it’s prepared to take “immediate action,” including filing a possible injunction restricting anyone from entering the building if the safety issues were not addressed within 60 days.
Despite the notices, the mall and a number of its 50 vendors — as well as the Mexican food truck located outside — were open Wednesday.
Brent Eaton, who took over operation of the mall in January 2020 and is in agreement to eventually take over ownership, said there’s been a great deal of miscommunication between them and the city, and there’s been some misconceptions about how they’ve been operating their market.
He said the intent was always to get in compliance with the city’s municipal code and building code requirements. Eaton said he has a vested interest in improving the site and wants to see it thrive and become a center of activity again in Lewis County.
“I want to make it nicer, that is my end goal. I want to work with the city. I do not have a problem with getting in compliance. There seems to have been some code changes that I wasn’t aware of from my previous rehab projects as far as what needs to be permitted,” said Eaton, 52, who has a professional background in real estate.
Eaton said he fears for the safety of his long-term RV tenants and isn’t sure where many of them may end up going. Some of them, he guessed, may end up homeless or parked at Walmart.
Eaton said Yard Birds was allowing two homeless individuals to occupy the second-floor space during business hours, but denied claims that they were living there full time or sleeping there. He also denies any claims the second floor isn’t safe, noting the robust nature of the beams.
“It’s going to be here in 5,000 years unless a volcano takes it out. It’ll be rusted, but it’ll be here,” Eaton said.
He said he made some assumptions about some of the permits when operations were handed over to him from Darris McDaniel, who’s owned the building for more than two decades. Eaton said he hopes to get a rehabilitation loan to come into compliance.
“In general, Yard Birds has continued to deteriorate over the last several years and they have continued to do work without permits and using the site for unintended reasons,” City Manager Jill Anderson said Wednesday by phone.
Tammy Baraconi, the city’s planning and building manager, said the city has been attempting to work with the owners since last spring to address these concerns, but very little progress has been made and work has consistently been stalled.
Efforts to get the building up to code and safety concerns addressed go back to at least 2019 with the Chehalis Fire Department, Baraconi said. This wasn’t a step they took lightly.
“The bottom line is we don’t want anyone to die,” Anderson said, adding later: “It’s become a blight and unsafe.”
Baraconi confirmed Eaton did turn in a business plan, but it lacked any specific details and timelines on how he would bring the building up to the standards. She said it also didn’t address the issues with the sprinklers and gaps in permitting.
Of the RV park, and many of its tenants who go back at least 10 years, Anderson said there was always suspicion over the years that they were allowing tenants to park there for more than 14 days, designating them as permanent inhabitant, but changes in administration and staff interfered in those efforts.