“I don’t know who to blame, the kid (who allegedly started the fire), or Union Pacific, for our home,” said Vicki Oseguera.
The house was destroyed by fire on Sept. 29 after several teenagers were seen lighting fires in an adjacent lot owned by Union Pacific railroad between Sixth and Third streets. A 15-year-old boy was arrested and charged with the crime.
The lot commonly referred to as the Bow Tie is not fenced off, and often used by trespassers to get to and from the downtown area.
“It’s a magnet for trouble,” Oseguera said. “If we had a retaining wall, my house would be still standing. It’s frustrating. I feel like a victim. I feel someone intentionally did this to my family.”
“This didn’t have to happen,” she said, becoming frustrated at the sight of two teenage boys walking past her house on the Union Pacific property on Oct. 7.
The previous day, there were two women walking a dog and a teenage girl seen traveling separately through the lot.
“Kids are the issue,” Oseguera said. “It should be fenced and posted private property.”
The Bow Tie lot is cluttered with concrete piles, small mountains of discarded dirt, overgrown weeds, piles of railroad ties and debris. Less than 100 yards from the homes on the Falcon Court cul-de-sac is a mound of dirt, overgrown trees and more concrete chunks, which the Osegueras say are often used as a hangout for teenagers and the homeless.
Robert McLaughlin, who lives across the street from the Osegueras, said he is afraid to even open his window shades facing the Bow Tie. He said he fears who might be looking into his home to see his belongings.
“You have to be alert,” he said. “People come through this field all the time looking for things. I don’t want to be a (burglary) victim.”
“It’s a very obvious recurring pattern, 7:15 a.m. and 3:05 p.m., before and after school,” McLaughlin said, referring to the parade of teenagers trespassing on the lot.
Fearful that these teens would be injured jumping the fences on their property to gain access to and from the Bow Tie, Oseguera installed a small gate. McLaughlin said he was advised to obtain higher liability insurance.
“The neighbors across the street asked if I had a problem with kids jumping my fence and broken windows (after moving in),” McLaughlin said. “I hadn’t, and the next day I had a huge picture window broken. At the very least, it’s wise for a company like Union Pacific to take the responsibility of citizens near their property seriously.”
City officials said attempts were made earlier this year to purchase the Bow Tie area from Union Pacific with redevelopment money, but according to City Manager Leon Churchill, neither party could agree on who should clean the property.
“Discussions broke off surrounding liability and cleanup issues,” Churchill said, pointing out that years of railroad use has left the lot unfit for use without significant work. “Both parties knew cleanup would be substantial (cost). We’re perfectly committed to pursuing federal and alternative funding for its cleanup, but we can’t pursue it without ownership. Union Pacific is the owner of the Bow Tie, and they have those responsibilities.”
Communicating through e-mail, the director of Union Pacific corporate relations and media, Aaron Hunt, wrote in regard to the purchase attempt: “After additional analysis of our current and future customer service needs, we decided to maintain ownership of the property. We are focused on operating a safe and efficient railroad. Our decision to keep the property was not impacted by cleanup considerations.”
In an effort to force Union Pacific to clean the Bow Tie property, Tracy code enforcement officials have issued a number of administrative citations to Union Pacific.
Three citations were sent on April 20, 2011, charging Union Pacific a $100-a-day fine for failure to comply. None of the citations have been resolved, said city of Tracy Community Preservation Manager Ana Contreras.
“We sent so many abatement orders, and we haven’t heard from anybody,” she said.
Contreras said the city plans to wait until the citations reach $1,000, and then officials will consider if the city wants to file in small claims court. She said the city could clean up the lot, but the abatement would be too costly and the likelihood of repayment by the railroad would be years into the future.
“Our goal is to get voluntary compliance,” Contreras said. “The foundation is education. We do as much as we can to get the property owner into compliance.”
She said the potential is there for something like the Sept. 29 house fire to occur. She said the lot has become a site for illegal dumping and trespassing.
“We definitely want the area cleaned up,” Contreras said. “At a minimum, we want the garbage, debris and weeds removed.”
Hunt wrote that his company is in “the midst of an ongoing conversation to create a comprehensive cleanup plan for the property with the department of toxic substances control, which is a branch of the California Environmental Protection Agency.”
He did not provide a timeline as to when the cleanup might begin.
When asked why Union Pacific has not fenced the area or built a retaining wall between the residential areas and the Bow Tie, Hunt wrote, “We are willing to have a dialogue with the city about the current state of the property.”
No additional questions sent by the Tracy Press to Hunt were answered by deadline.
Vicki and Jose Oseguera said that, regardless of the outcome between the city and Union Pacific, they plan to rebuild their home on Falcon Court.
“Our souls are in this house,” Vicki Oseguera said. “What’s that term? … We will rise from the ashes. Hopefully, a year from today we will be sitting in our new home talking about all this.”