For several years, homeowners on and near this small Delta community have argued loudly that Contra Costa County was overstepping its authority and bullying them with baseless building code violations and fines.
The county has repeatedly dismissed their complaints, but it may find that harder to do after a recent court victory by two homeowners that has prompted the husband and wife to seek "millions" in a federal lawsuit.
Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Laurel Brady ruled in June that the county incorrectly ordered Clark and Karla Fratus to tear down parts of two vacation homes they own, and she wiped out thousands of dollars in fines against the Livermore couple.
Bolstered by that victory, the two are suing again, saying that they are fighting for all property owners in Contra Costa County. The federal suit, filed in July in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, names county supervisors and several building department officials as defendants. The suit asks for unspecified damages; Karla Fratus says they want the county to pay them millions of dollars.
"The county was demanding we tear down half of our properties," Karla Fratus said. "The fines were bogus."
County building officials fined the couple $12,900 in 2005 for violations with their two homes, across Dutch Slough from Bethel Island. The homes have downstairs living quarters that are below the flood plain, and the building department wanted them removed.
The fines were attached to their property taxes, Karla Fratus said, and the total has since ballooned to about $21,500 because of additional fines for not paying those taxes.
In her ruling, Brady said documents provided by the Fratuses provided strong evidence that at least one of the homes was built in 1964 -- long before a 1987 law that requires all new residential construction be above the flood plain and that new additions to older structures have prior approval. She said their evidence strongly suggests the same for the second house.
The county failed to provide any proof that the homes were built, or that additions were made to them, after the law took effect, Brady said. She ordered the county to lift the fines against the couple.
"I think we could stand to learn from what the court ruling is; it will be very valuable to us," county building inspections Director Jason Crapo said. "We will try to learn from that and improve our code enforcement practices in the county."
Contra Costa County building department head Catherine Kutsuris said county attorneys are studying Brady's decision and will soon decide whether to appeal it. Attorneys at the Contra Costa County Counsel's Office did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Karla Fratus said she and her husband had no chance of winning an initial appeal with the county because it was heard by the same building inspector who cited them for the violation and his supervisor.
"If you got a speeding ticket and appealed, you would not see the same officer who wrote you up ruling on the appeal," she said. "We should have had an independent adjudicator."
Fratus said she and her husband sued the county last year. The couple went through five attorneys and paid $50,000 in attorney fees before deciding to represent themselves.
County Supervisor Federal Glover, of Pittsburg, said he and his colleagues have been pushing for more stringent code enforcement in East Contra Costa for years.
But a handful of Bethel Island residents have complained that building inspectors have treated them unfairly. Bill Gearhart said some have left town rather than go along with the county's demands.
He said the building department has made decisions arbitrarily.
"The thing that's annoyed people is that sometimes it's backed by reasonable thinking, and sometimes it isn't," Gearhart said.
Last year, the county asked San Jose resident Dan Majhor to remove some farm equipment, a boat and some storage trailers from his property on the island. Majhor appealed a $4,300 fine on grounds that the property could not be seen from the road and lost.
Since then, building inspectors have made more than 10 trips to his property and charged him another $700 for inspections, he said.
"They're bullying me," he said. "They said they could put this (fine) against my property tax."
After hearing about the Fratuses' court victory, Majhor said he has begun to consider his own lawsuit.
Glover, whose district will no longer include Bethel Island after new supervisorial boundaries take effect, said he does not believe the Fratus case will convince others to sue the county.
"If they think something is unfounded, they can (sue)," he said. "I don't think there will be many cases where we are wrong about these things."
Contact Roman Gokhman at 925-779-7189. Follow him at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.