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By Casey Christie / The Californian
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By Casey Christie / The Californian
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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY THEO DOUGLAS Californian staff writer email@example.com
Eight years after truckers unceremoniously dumped it near the southeast corner of Highway 178 and Comanche Drive, a 60,000-cubic-yard dirt pile has settled in -- sprouting grass, hosting an art installation, and being named at least twice.
Despite an open city code enforcement case against its owners, the 35-feet-high, 400-feet-long pile, which resembles an irregular loaf of bread, likely will be part of the landscape for at least another year.
INTRODUCING MOUNT PULTE
City Building Director Phil Burns calls it Mount Pulte.
Pulte Homes developed the Solera at Kern Canyon retirement community in the mid-2000s at Highway 178 and Miramonte Drive, one stoplight east of the, er, mount.
The dirt came from there, and possibly other northeast developments, as early as 2004, as Solera and others were built.
Ownership of it changed hands in May 2007. That's when Simi Valley developer Larry Wilmot bought nearly 37 acres of land at the southwest, southeast and northeast corners of the intersection from subsidiary companies of Northridge developer Timothy J. Lindgren, paying $10.6 million. He also got the dirt.
Neither Wilmot nor Lindgren responded to requests for comment, but in October 2007, Wilmot told The Californian he'd "inherited" the dirt from Lindgren.
Wilmot discussed plans for a strip mall with a pharmacy and "neighborhood-type shops" on five to six acres at the southwest corner; a major shopping center with a market at the northeast corner; and a commercial and office development at the southeast corner.
By the time of that conversation, plans for the southeast corner were already on hold due to the housing slowdown.
Wilmot fell approximately $369,000 behind on his loan by November 2008, when he defaulted on a nearly $7.3 million loan against the land.
In 2010, the land returned to Lindgren's subsidiaries.
Wilmot's woes were a symptom of the times, according to Planning Director Jim Eggert, who notes that during the recession, even national developers left Bakersfield, leaving fill dirt all over town.
When Mount Pulte went up, construction was starting to boom, and some property owners thought fill dirt could help stimulate development.
"Whoever put the pile there did the right thing at that time. Times just aren't right, right now," said Rob Schlegel, an estimator at Kern Asphalt Paving and Sealing Co., whose former company worked on the City in the Hills development one exit west of Solera.
NO, IT'S CALLED MOUNT SOLERA
The past eight years have also frowned on Solera residents -- who, incidentally, have named the molehill Mount Solera. Some want to trade it for a market.
"Now that things are picking up, we were hoping to at least get a store. Our closest store is four miles (away) on Niles" Street, said Solera resident Maria Powell, adding that conditions high atop Mount Solera would be greatly improved "if they would plant something there."
Sometimes, something is planted up there: an art installation -- installed surreptitiously because its creator is publicity-shy, and also because he's trespassing.
An anonymous Coast Guard veteran who reportedly lives in Solera periodically installs an art piece depicting five U.S. Marine Corps members and one U.S. Navy corpsman raising a second flag on Mount Suribachi on Feb. 23, 1945, during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.
His piece, comprising several pieces of green-painted plywood, a pole, and an American flag, has appeared to commemorate the 1945 flag-raising, and the Nov. 10 anniversary of the Marine Corps founding.
It was reportedly last seen earlier this year, to the great enjoyment of Solera resident Michael Kennedy.
"It's beautiful. It makes my heart pound every time I see it," he said of the installation, showing the corpsmen in silhouette.
Dick Taylor, director of the Kern County Veterans Service Department, said he thinks Mount Solera resembles the landform on Iwo Jima, where more than 6,800 American servicemen died.
"It's eerily similar to Mount Suribachi," said Taylor, who knows the artist but has promised not to reveal his identity. "He really thinks that will detract from the meaning and the whole thing. He just wants to honor those Marines and corpsmen who served our country."
PROGRESS HAS BEEN SLOW
The artist may have to find a different gallery, however, in a year or so. City and Caltrans officials are slowly paving the way for the dirt's removal.
Real estate broker Frank Tripicchio, who represents Lindgren, had talks with developers in 2012 about building a retail center on the intersection's southwest corner.
Around that time, Tripicchio said Caltrans told him Lindgren would have to sell part of his land to widen Highway 178 -- putting these discussions on hold.
The city opened a code enforcement case against Lindgren in April, which it may pursue because it hasn't heard from Tripicchio or Lindgren.
Burns, the city building director, said the city would rather see the dirt go away than cite Lindgren with an infraction or collect a $300 fine -- the typical results of a code enforcement case.
"It's just too bad there wasn't a way to get that done," Burns said. "They want to do the good and right thing. They even set up a community meeting and went up and met with the folks at Solera" last year.
"The reason why we haven't had any further communication (with the city) is because ... we were still unaware as to how much progress Caltrans had made," said Frank Tripicchio, accusing the agency of dealing the retail center a "death blow" by requiring vehicle access to the southwest corner from eastbound Highway 178 be 400 feet from the corner, on someone else's land.
Caltrans spokesman Jose Camarena and city officials said access to the southwest corner from Highway 178 has to be 400 feet from the intersection for safety reasons -- but that Trippichio could submit a request for "permitted access" on Lindgren's parcel.
WIDENING HIGHWAY 178
The Thomas Roads Improvement Program, which oversees major road projects on behalf of the city, is leading the redesign of Highway 178 -- and currently is handling a rebuild of the Morning Drive interchange, about two miles west.
TRIP Engineer Kristina Budak said the agency is still redesigning Highway 178 and Comanche Drive, which becomes Alfred Harrell Highway north of the intersection.
Budak said designs should be complete by mid-2014.
Real Property Manager Don Anderson, who handles property acquisitions for the city, said construction may not begin until late 2014, but that maps and legal descriptions for the area are currently being prepared, and appraisals are in the works.
Once Lindgren knows how much land he has left, and if access to the southwest parcel is resolved, Tripicchio said they hope to break ground on a retail center with a pharmacy.
If that were to happen, the developer could finally use the hill for its intended purpose -- as fill dirt -- sometime in the next 12 to 16 months.
Depending upon negotiations, there could be a lot more time for reflection on the mount.
"Initially, it was a problem, because that dirt, when it gets windy, it gets blowing," Eggert, the city planning director, said of early dust storms in the area. "After a couple years, it gets grass growing on it, and it gets compacted."
In 2015, the dirt will have been there a decade.