April 28, 2004

Agency claims home of woman

By CHUCK MUELLER, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

IVANPAH - A whitewashed bungalow in this old desert mining town southeast of Mountain Pass holds a lifetime of memories for Connie Connelly.

But the National Park Service says the 44-year-old woman, who came to Ivanpah with her parents in 1968, must leave the house by Friday.

The six-room cinder block dwelling, once a general store that stocked provisions for desert prospectors, is on federal land in the Mojave National Preserve, park officials said.

Connie's parents, Don and Pauline Connelly, were issued lifetime leases to live in the house by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which administered the area before the park service took over in 1994. But the documents did not include their daughter's name.

"But it has been my home since I was 8, and all my memories are there," said Connie, who shares the five-acre site with 12 dogs, a cat and a horse.

Her father, a former sheriff's deputy in San Bernardino and Riverside counties, died in 1990 at age 80. Her mother died last year at age 81 after a long illness that had required the family to move to Newberry Springs to be closer to medical care. While they were away from Ivanpah, another family occupied the house, and the Connellys had to buy it back for $8,000.


"It appears that the bureau did not update the lease after it was granted to the parents in 1986," said Jennifer Foster, co-founder of Public Lands for Public Use, a 6-year-old watchdog group that investigates the use and misuse of public land.

As a consequence, Connelly does not possess a current lease or title to the land where the bungalow sits, said Chief Park Ranger Dennis Ziemann.

Without the lease, she is residing illegally on federal land, Ziemann said in a March 18 letter to Connelly that demands she leave the 71-year-old house.

"Failure to comply will result in criminal prosecution and removal of all property on the premises," Ziemann said.

That could mean the park service intends to tear down the house, which qualifies as a historic site because of its age, Foster fears.

"When a structure is over 50 years old, it could be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places," said desert historian Dennis Casebier.


Public Lands for Public Use plans to stand at Connelly's side on Friday and over the weekend and longer if necessary, said Foster's husband, Ken, who co-founded the group with his wife.

The Fosters filed a notice of intent Monday to appeal the issue in Connelly's behalf with the U.S. Department of Interior's Board of Land Appeals, claiming the BLM's legal description for the bungalow site is inaccurate.

"The coordinates cited in the bureau's lifetime lease of 1986 are wrong," Jennifer Foster said. "The lease says the house is in Section 32 of Township 15, but it really is in Section 31."

"Accordingly, the Bureau of Land Management may never have had the right to charge the Connelly family for a lease in the first place," Jennifer Foster said. "The federal government may owe Connie a ton of money."

"The bureau later corrected the erroneous section numbers, but the coordinates are still wrong. Her house isn't where the lease says it is. It's a mile away, across the (Union Pacific) railroad tracks on patented (private) land."

Documents in the San Bernardino County Recorder and Assessor's offices show that Connelly holds possessory rights to the house, and her tax payments are current.

Ziemann said Connelly has refused to comply with procedures that would allow the park service to provide her with relocation assistance.

Mary Martin, superintendent of the 1.6 million-acre national preserve, told Jennifer Foster in an April 5 letter that she wants to see "a positive resolution to this issue."

"(But) all the information in our records and those of (the) county and Bureau of Land Management clearly indicate that Ms. Connelly is illegally occupying federal land."


Martin could not be reached for further comment this week, but park service spokeswoman Holly Bundock in Oakland said, "We've offered Connie Connelly relocation costs, including rent for 2 years and moving costs. In lieu of rent, we would buy a like house somewhere else. But she has declined that."

Connelly acknowledges she met with Martin and a park service real estate official Jan. 7.

"They wanted me to file a disclaimer and sign it over to them," she said. "They offered me $3,000 to relocate. But you can't put value on your childhood home. You can't put a price on memories."

The diminutive woman, who claims Mandan and Sioux tribal heritage, lives on occasional sales of her watercolor paintings and from jobs as a horseshoer and store clerk.

Her Spartan surroundings at the 2,400-square-foot bungalow include a wood stove and oil lamps. She hauls water from Nipton, 17 miles away, in two 55-gallon drums mounted in the bed of her 1973 Ford pickup. And every six weeks she shops for groceries in Nipton or in Searchlight, Nev.

When mid-summer temperatures climb to 110 degrees, Connelly turns on a generator to power a couple of fans in the bungalow.

"I'm not fussy about anything," she said. "It's not necessary to have a new wardrobe or newfangled gadgets."

The eviction controversy has sparked interest in Washington and Sacramento.

"We are aware of the situation," said Jim Specht, deputy chief of staff for Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who represents the east Mojave. "He has asked his staff to look into it."

State Sen. Roy Ashburn, R-Bakersfield, who represents some San Bernardino County desert areas, said he was told by a Lewis staff member that the congressman would work with local officials to ensure the issue is resolved consistent with the law and that due process is followed.

Bob Smith, area representative for county 1st District Supervisor Bill Postmus, said he has asked a survey team to study the coordinates to determine if the bungalow is on private or public land.

"If it's on private land, we would intervene to determine the legality of a federal agency being involved," Smith said.

Connelly's five acres lie within a 40-acre tract that was privately patented under the Homestead Act, according to an original land patent signed on March 7, 1912, by President William Howard Taft.

"Accordingly, the Bureau of Land Management may never have had the right to charge the Connelly family for a lease in the first place," Jennifer Foster said. "The federal government may owe Connie a ton of money."