The homes of Richmond Drive are framed with cheery pink camellia bushes and boxwood hedges in a neighborhood tucked away on the northern edge of the Santa Rosa Junior College campus.
It’s a neighborhood of roofers, winemakers and social workers; they are nurses and teachers, people who work at delis and hardware stores; those spending their golden years where they raised their children.
And they’ve felt under siege for decades.
Toward the western end of the two-block street of modest single-story homes, 550 Richmond Drive stands out for the grime, the garbage and the troubled people in orbit around the house owned by the Vincent family since the neighborhood was built in the 1950s. The home has been a refuge for drug users, thieves and lost souls since the mid 1980s, police and city records show.
Neighbors talk about finding human waste in their yards like it’s a regular feature of suburban life. They trade stories of calling police about people passed out in the grass outside their windows, the frightening late-night fights and the break-ins. A neighbor once drove across town before realizing someone was asleep in the bed of his pickup.
And so over the years, residents along Richmond Drive have built higher fences, added locked gates, put in motion-sensing lights and kept police officers on speed dial.
“I don’t feel safe,” said Doris Thompson, 84, who remembers days long ago when she let her young children ride in the street on their tricycles.
For the past 35 years, the city failed to stem the crime and nuisance that have haunted the neighborhood. But what residents call their neighborhood nightmare might be coming to an end.
On Monday, the city installed a 6-foot chain-link fence around the Vincent home and locked it with a padlock to keep the owner, John Vincent, and all others out. The city sued Vincent for creating a public nuisance and allowing his home to be used as a haven for drug use and sales.
Assistant City Attorney Adam Abel said it’s a new strategy for the city, and possibly other cities as well, to use California’s Drug Abatement Act to sue property owners. The law holds property owners accountable for drug crime on their premises, regardless of whether they are suspected of any criminal activity.
Petaluma also is exploring using the act for the first time to address a long-blighted property on Weaverly Drive. Earlier this month, Petaluma City Council members voted to spend city resources to sue the owners and ask a judge to shutter the property and award the city as much as $75,000 in fines.
Abel said he modeled the lawsuit after the $1.1 million judgment the city collected in 2011 against former owners of the shuttered Llano Hotel, once a notorious haven for prostitution. It used a California law called the Red Light Abatement Act, which proceeded the Drug Abatement Act. The laws allow cities to seek payment for the costs of investigating the property and taking owners to court.
On March 3, a Sonoma County Superior Court Judge reviewed a trove of evidence kept over the years and heard testimony from police, code enforcement and a neighbor. His conclusion: 550 Richmond Drive must be shuttered and sold.
In his lengthy, excoriating order, Judge Rene Chouteau asked Vincent if he understood the “terrible, really terrible” impact he’s had on the neighborhood, imploring: “Can you imagine what your neighbors have suffered?”