The Translators: Nimbyism, ESL stall home expansion plans

Hui Wu saved for three years before finally beginning construction of a detached workshop behind his home on Gramercy Drive in Castro Valley. But neighbors say the building is ugly, unsafe and unfitting — and they want it razed.

Hui Wu doesn’t speak English, so when the Castro Valley resident had to face angry neighbors and the seven-member Municipal Advisory Council to defend a home building project, he had to rely on a soft-spoken, 14-year-old translator.

Through the translator, a family friend, he told the council the addition to his property at 16027 Gramercy Drive is being built lawfully.

A handful of Wu’s neighbors came to the meeting to refute that claim, calling his stand-alone structure “unsightly” and “monstrous.”

Like most other homes on the block, Wu’s home sits on a slope. The rear of the house rests lower than the front. The home is bordered by homes to either side and from behind.

The residents of each of those homes, among others, say life on Gramercy Drive and the parallel-running Berkshire Road has become a lot less comfortable since Wu started his construction project Nov. 15.

The neighbors’ perspective

“It’s a monstrosity of a structure that appears so large from our windows,” said resident Susan Laverra, reading from a letter at the Dec. 13 MAC meeting. “It’s unsightly.”

Laverra said Wu has been building non-stop from Nov. 15 to Dec. 8, including on weekends and holidays.

Citing excessive water runoff — and longstanding fears of a landslide along the slope — Laverra warned that Wu’s project could hurt the local housing market.

“Prospective homeowners will think twice before buying a home here because of the apparent disregard for zoning and county regulations,” she told the council.

Resident Claudia Provost started a neighborhood petition to prevent Wu from continuing with his project. She handed council member Jeff Moore the signed petition before presenting her complaints at the podium.

“I have lived (in this neighborhood) for 40 years,” Provost said. “I’ve never had so many moles and gophers on my property. We’re here for some answers.”

Joseph Bacon said he has lived on Berkshire Road — downslope from Wu’s house — for the past year. “Each time it rains, I get at least six inches of water under my house,” he said, blaming the mini-flood for the rodents now living under his home.

“When I first bought my house, there were no structures near (it),” Bacon said. “Now, when I look out my windows, I have other windows facing me,” he said.

Gary Jim, a Gramercy Drive resident, said he read the county staff reports regarding Wu’s permit.

“I want Mr. Wu to build whatever he wants as long as it’s safe,” and legal, he said.

Helen Chandler said she lives on Berkshire Road, directly behind Wu’s newly built structure. She said she used to work in occupational therapy and had observed several OSHA violations.

“There are three windows visible from my patio,” she said, adding that the structure looks more like an apartment than the workshop Wu’s permit stated it would be.

Echoing other residents’ claims of damages caused by Wu’s site, Chandler said she has had to call the East Bay Municipal Utilities District to address water runoff issues at her home. “We’ve started losing the permeability of the soil,” she said.

Pauline Vieira has lived in the neighborhood for more than 20 years.

“We are very concerned about this,” said the elderly woman. “It’s a terrible eyesore. I think (planning officials) would go through the roof if they saw this.”

“I wonder if these people know how to get building permits through the planning department?” she said, referring to Wu.

The council’s response

Wu did submit the proper permits through the planning department — three years before raising a single hammer.

County planner Sonia Urzua told the council that Wu’s structure is in compliance with building codes.

“Officials have checked this structure again and again,” she said. “There are no violations on the record.”

During the 20-minute public commenting session, Wu sat in the audience with his associates, not knowing exactly what people had been saying. He did seem, however, aware of the tension in the room, as he frequently fidgeted and whispered to his young translator.

Then it was Wu’s turn to address the council. He did so wearing an olive green hooded sweatshirt emblazoned on the front left side with an American flag appliqué.

Wu stood off to the side of the podium as Eva Chen, a 14-year-old friend of Wu’s family and a freshman at Castro Valley High, struggled to translate complex county planning lingo from English to Chinese, and Chinese to English — in front of the council and an audience of 30 people.

“He said he’s building everything according to the construction plan,” mumbled Chen into the microphone.

The council asked for clarification of some of Wu’s building procedures, including his apparent use of a sand-like soil near the structure’s foundation. The information worried council member Marc Crawford.

“As a builder, I can’t see any logic in why soil was brought in,” he said.

Council member Jeff Moore said he lived for 12 years in the same neighborhood. “I think this project is way out of scale and proportion for this area,” he said.

Dan Nelson followed up by saying he didn’t understand why Wu’s permit was approved to begin with.

“There’s no landscaping, no water treatment,” he said. “We’d need to know that the structure was on a compacted base before we could even approve this.”

By the end of the evening, the council voted unanimously to deny Wu’s application to maintain his half-built structure. Follow-up meetings with other government planning agencies will help make the final decision.

Help with translation

Judy Jung, a translator with Alameda County Public Works, has helped Wu communicate since he first applied for his building permit in late 2007. She didn’t attend Monday night’s MAC meeting, but said Wu told her he was upset about how it transpired.

“Three years ago, he applied for this permit,” Jung said. “He postponed building anything until recently because he had been in between jobs, saving up for this project.”

Jung said she is normally the one who translates for Wu at meetings. She said she didn’t know the specifics of his project from a planner’s perspective.

Wu declined to be interviewed, saying he was too upset.

There is a chance he’ll have to tear down what he has already built if county planning officials decide his structure is in fact unsafe and unfit for the area.

County planners have said that Wu’s new structure is safe and sound. Many of his neighbors disagree. What do you think? Does Wu’s reliance on translators disempower him in this fight?

See on Castro Valley Patch.