.Santa Clara County Blocks Homeowner’s Access to Insurance

Two-year deadline arrives as woman’s fight with county drags on

In July, the Los Gatan, a still-new sister paper to Metro Silicon Valley, began following the travails of property owner Sidney French. It’s a long story, but the short of it is that French—who moved to the Call of the Wild area of Los Gatos right before the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake struck—has once again been affected by a disaster.

During the storm that sparked the CZU Lightning Complex fire in 2020, a bolt of lightning struck a tree near her house, sending a 35-foot section right onto her roof. She has been facing the two-year deadline to access insurance funds, but she has been unable to get vital paperwork from the Santa Clara County Department of Planning and Development. French says the department has blocked her attempts to access public documents.

A Department of Environmental Health official tried to find out what steps French would have to take to get her insurance company to pay for repairs before the deadline. But she was rebuffed by the county’s Code Enforcement division.

“Whenever you do any kind of repairs to the house, the first thing you have to do is get septic clearance,” French said. “I’m making these requests for public information—for what’s involved in getting septic clearance—and they’re not giving it to me because they say I rebuilt my house without permits.”

French maintains that her home was built in 1930 and was never rebuilt—with or without permits. There is a home that was destroyed down the hill from where she lives, which French believes may have confused a county inspector who filed a violation in the 1990s saying her home was demolished and rebuilt without permits.

She believes two permits for her house were used for the home across the road, and she wants them back in her file. Two neighbors have submitted signed statements confirming French’s house was never rebuilt.

The previous owner of her home also owned the property across the road. He says that French’s home is decades old and that the house he built is the one across the street.

The county claims it can no longer find key documents that French previously accessed back when she was researching for a water system in the area in the early 1990s.

On Aug. 12, French made a last-ditch attempt with the county. 

“I am overwhelmed and not understanding the process needed for required clearance from your department so that I may proceed to the next steps,” she told Ross Kakinami, an environmental health specialist with the Department of Environmental Health, in an email. “I need to submit information to my insurance company regarding the first required steps.”

On Aug. 15, at 8:13am, Kakinami delivered some bad news to French.

“After talking to Tyson Green with Code Enforcement it was determined that the home has been significantly altered without permits and the existing structure will need to have all unpermitted work legalized,” he said.

French replied a few hours later explaining that this fact is in dispute; she added she still wants to at least get what she can, for now.

“This does not change that I have submitted to you in writing on Aug 12, 2022 a Request under the California Public Records Act for Santa Clara County DEH information regarding septic clearances required for a permit issuance for repairs to a roof and exterior wall of a house damaged in the FEMA 4558-CZU Lighting Storm,” she wrote, adding she’d also asked for a copy of the septic permit and related documentation. “Please comply with this request ASAP!”

Farmers Insurance was providing coverage for French’s property at the time of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. When contacted about the 69-year-old woman’s predicament, Farmers Insurance spokesperson Luis Sahagun said the company was “working with our customer.”

On Aug. 11, French reached out to Farmers to gain more information about the “Additional Living Expense” coverage on her policy. 

After another Los Gatan story ran Aug. 17, Farmers sent her a reply confirming her loss happened on Aug. 16, 2020, meaning the 24-month window had lapsed. But the company wrote, “However, we have reviewed the information you have recently provided and we will grant you an extension of 12 months (for a total of 36 months) for you to claim applicable Additional Living Expenses, through August 16, 2023.”

The county did not respond to questions sent on Aug. 22 about French’s case. But the following day Planning Director Jacqueline Onciano sent French an ambiguous email.

“The County Planning and Development Department looks forward to receiving a Building Application regarding the residential structure,” she wrote. “As stated in the previous email, a Written Determination has been issued, please proceed accordingly.”

French believes this means the county is unwilling to help her fix the permit problems. She says if the county won’t admit her house was built in 1930, she won’t be able to build.

The “Written Determination” explicitly relies on the 1997 violation document that has her address number, but features the street name of the house across the road—which was later crossed out with her street name written above.

French says all she wants is for the county to help her iron out this tangled web of confusing paperwork.

Onciano did not respond to repeated calls for clarification.

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