Plans for first class resort at Lake Berryessa

March 13, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Some big changes in store for Lake Berryessa. The federal government plans to build a first class resort there. But what about the families who've leased the land around the lake for decades? The Federal Bureau of Land Reclamation wants them and their property, out.

It would appear to be one of those American dreams -- a house and porch overlooking a beautiful lake. But if life was really so perfect for Doris Pierce, she would not have invited us here.

"I'm not looking for a handout. I'm looking for help," says Pierce.

She's not the only one feeling that way around Lake Berryessa, lately. Critics point fingers at the Federal Bureau of Reclamation and by association, at Pete Lucero, who runs the local division.

"We think we're acting on behalf of the general public and the taxpayers who want to use Lake Berryessa to its full extent," says Lucero.

Until 1953, there was a town at the bottom of this valley. Then the federal government built a dam, creating the lake behind it. Berryessa has 165 miles of shoreline and a few franchised resorts where, for generations, families have leased camping sites, bought trailers and used them as vacation homes. But now, as long-term resort agreements finally expire, the department has a different vision for Berryessa.

"In 10 years we hope to see this as being a first-class, Bay Area recreation destination," says Lucero.

With hotels and cabins, not trailers. As the bureau takes its land back, it wants thousands of trailers out of there.

"Probably what I'm really thinking couldn't be said on family television," says Jim Sonntag.

Jim Sonntag and his wife owned a place and vacationed in it for 20 years. Now they're packing up and walking away with only memories to show for their investment.

"My options are to either tear it down in place or sell it for a dollar," says Sonntag.

Many owners have chosen the first option. When demolition is cheaper than moving, entire communities of vacation homes are knocked into splinters and hauled away at a rate of dozens per week.

By June, Bob White, who owns the Rancho Monticello Concession, says the area will look like a bomb passed through it. The bureau especially wants the area cleared, especially of a few people who used these so-called vacation homes as permanent residences.

Wayne Freedman: "Was there abuse of the system as you see it?"

Bob White: "Yes, definitely. There was a number of people who have these trailers who weren't keeping them up."

The Bureau of Reclamation says campers should have seen this coming and that it will help to relocate hardship families who lived here because they worked here. That would include Doris Pierce who says she has heard nothing.

"This is my primary home. I have nowhere else to go," says Pierce.

She and her husband have their life savings tied up in the home. They live on $500 a month, plus free rent, which makes them truly stuck, with few options.

"You can't go out and rent an apartment. You can't do anything for less than $1,500 a month," says Pierce.

Her only hope is a last-ditch lawsuit against the government in federal court, next month. But if they lose...

"Those who don't sell them have the opportunity potentially to donate them. And when they donate them, they reach some sort of tax benefit. It may not be full value, but it's something," says Lucero.

And maybe a nice memory of what used to be. A sacrifice for the sake of a greater good that may make Lake Berryessa a nicer place for future generations. But when you're 76, this is no American dream.

"I don't feel like going anywhere, but I'm going to be forced to if they have their way," says Pierce.