Powerless in paradise

Shelley Booth’s story reads like a movie script — a disaster movie.

Two years ago, the Pepperdine graduate was married to a doctor and living in a 6,000-square-foot home in Thousand Oaks. Today, she and her five children are camping out in a mobile-home trailer on Las Flores Mesa, without electricity. At night, the clan makes do with candles and propane lanterns, and that is the way it’s been for a year. She’s tackled endless paperwork and encountered costly fees for local permits, approvals and clearances. Her situation, however, remains unchanged.

In 1996, her 14-year marriage was over, but her problems were only beginning. The divorce left her with insufficient funds and bad credit. With her children in tow, Booth decided to return to Malibu.

Finding a rental wasn’t easy, and after running a credit check, most property owners said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

In desperation, she found a run-down house on the 20600 block of PCH where the landlord didn’t care about credit. It was a place to call her own, but there were trade-offs. “We had rats and mice everywhere,” she recalls in a blend of both laughter and horror. “In the middle of winter, the skylight blew out. Rain was pouring into my house, then my dog fell off the balcony and broke his back.”

Well, what else could go wrong?

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With the money from her divorce settlement, she decided to buy a burnout on Las Flores Mesa, hoping to rebuild. She moved her kids, small dog and gray tabby into a trailer on the property, only to find she’d be in the dark until she obtained the necessary permits to live in a temporary trailer. Going through local red tape can try the toughest of souls, but for a divorced mother of five, it proved to be overwhelming.

“My impression is that they [the city] make you do all these things to complete the permit process and they keep changing their minds.” According to the city of Malibu, the matter is fairly clear-cut. “It’s an open code enforcement case as far as we’re concerned,” said Building and Safety Official Vic Peterson. “Her application is incomplete.”

Assistant Planner Ara Mihranian explains that numerous requirements need to be met and fees need to be paid — not for rebuilding, but for the temporary trailer. “She will need to get zoning clearance, then move on to geology and environmental health. At that point, she’ll have to go to the coastal commission and get a coastal permit before going on to building and safety.”

The reports, fees and permits can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars and even city officials are hard pressed to give an average breakdown. “I really couldn’t say,” says Mihranian. “It just depends.”

Booth is learning more about the building process than she ever wanted to and has found herself without enough money to pay the various fees. With five kids to feed, there isn’t much cash left over, not even to buy something as simple as a generator — and yes, even that requires a permit.

She hopes that one day she can put all of this behind her.

In the meantime, she makes frequent visits to divorce court, is dealing with a recent car accident and a newly discovered kidney stone. Laboring in her flower-filled garden, she tries to stay in good spirits, but sighs, “I’m totally exhausted. We’re living like the Amish out here.”

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