Yard work

In a dispute between an elderly homeowner and the City of Reno, Renoites came to the rescue

Richard Assaley and Sheila Parker check out the newly planted lawn and shrubbery in his yard.

Richard Assaley and Sheila Parker check out the newly planted lawn and shrubbery in his yard.

Photo By David Robert

Richard Assaley liked Reno when he first visited it as a California visitor after World War II, and he came back again and again on weekend trips in the 1950s and later. He also traveled to Reno’s Veterans Hospital when the federal government decided to start testing the servicepeople they had exposed to atomic blasts, in Assaley’s case at Bikini Atoll.

So when he and his wife, Catherine, moved to Reno in 1994, he was looking forward to a good life. In 1998, they moved to a new home in northwest Reno near Mae Anne Avenue. They were literally unpacking when she suffered a disabling stroke and was bedridden the rest of her life—eight years.

“There are boxes I still haven’t unpacked,” Assaley said this week. “Everything just stopped.”

Catherine Assaley spent the eight years mostly at home, though there were hospital stays once or twice a month, often in intensive care. Her husband nursed her through it.

“Like I said, I spent 24/7 by her side,” Assaley said. “Even when she was in the hospital, I was by her side because she only felt comfortable when I was near her, safe. So even though she’d be very upset, and they’d have her medicated, all I had to do was reach over and put a hand on her. She’d quiet down.”

She died on Valentine’s Day 2006. By then Assaley was 80 years old, and their home was in poor condition. He seems to have focused first, and within the limit of his energy—he is a multiple cancer survivor—on the interior. The outside could wait.

The city did not agree. On May 9, he received a certified letter from the city, signed by Community Development Department code enforcement officer Sally Lovitt. He was informed that his property was in violation of the Reno Municipal Code, section 8.22.090: “Unlawful to permit or allow existence of nuisance.” He had not known he had been inspected.

The nuisance was the lack of a lawn—the yard was plain dirt. There were apparently weeds growing in it, which was fairly easily remedied.

But it wasn’t that easy after he came to the city’s attention. The citation said the city was not just deciding what had to come out of his yard. It was also deciding what would go into it—landscaping. It was not enough to have a cleared yard, it also had to be beautified with “living or non-living ground cover to stabilize the soil in the front yard. Concrete slab/flatwork does not qualify as landscaping.” Soil “stabilization” was not defined for him.

But the citation did recite other facts of life, including the penalties: “You are being assessed the following fine in conjunction with the above violation(s): 1st. CITATION $100.00 FINE. THIS VIOLATION MUST BE CORRECTED BY May 24, 2007. … All necessary permits must be secured to correct the violation set forth in this notice. … $250.00 for the Second Citation and $500.00 for the Third and subsequent Citations for violation(s) of the same ordinance within one year upon non commercial properties.”

The notice also informed Assaley that he could appeal the citation if he paid $50. The house has a lien of $186,000 against it by Medicaid as a consequence of Catherine’s illness.

“I have a very hot temper,” Assaley said. “I was very angry. I wanted to react, but I knew it would be a stupid thing to do. So I went down there, and I tried to talk to her [Lovitt]. She never talked to me. She never talked personally to me. I’ve called. … I never could contact her personally. All I could get was these letters.”

After he was unable to contact Lovitt, he says, he went to the Washoe County Senior Law Project, where paralegal Kristin Bellister was able to get him an extension to this week.

Assaley set to work to try to do what the city wanted. He gets around town on the municipal bus line. In trying to bring home a small tree he purchased at a nursery, he was told he could not transport it on the bus. But a transit supervisor for the bus line, John Gould, decided to get personally involved and, using his private car, transported trees to Assaley’s home for him. A bus driver identified only as Dusty helped haul fencing in her truck and with other chores on her days off.

Most important, it was during a ride on the bus line’s route 4 that Assaley met one of his young neighbors, Sheila Parker.

“I ride the 4 bus, which is the northwest bus out here.” Parker said. “And I have run into him quite a few times on the bus, and we just started talking and he told me about this letter that he got. And that’s where I really started coming over and started helping. He’s just a good friend, he’s really a good friend, and someone that really cares a lot. He’s done a lot for our country.” (He sometimes accidentally calls Parker “Cathy.")

Parker said she was taught to honor veterans and help people, and she calls Assaley “a great man.” (He served in the South Pacific during World War II and says he was involved in moving the USS Saratoga into the Bikini atomic blast zone. It was targeted by atom bombs on July 1 and July 25, 1946, sinking after the second explosion.)

Parker was distressed that the supposed inspection of the property took place without Assaley knowing it was going on until he received the citation in the mail.

“And I don’t understand the city of Reno’s stance,” Parker said. “Why don’t they just knock on the door and ask what’s needed?”

She got things organized. Soon she had Tholl Fence, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Hardware, K-mart, Raley’s Market and Home Depot donating flowering plants, pavers, trees, shrubs, fence posts and rails. (Of the merchants she approached, Parker said, only one declined to help.) Volunteers planted a lawn along with a couple dozen trees and shrubs. A front walk was added. Parker found a Boy Scout troop that is about to join the effort. A fence is yet to come.

Lovitt could not be reached for comment. In 2003, when she was a secretary in the Community Development Department, she was named a city employee of the year for what City Manager Charles McNeely called “her willingness to always go the extra mile in everything that she does. Whether assisting customers, code enforcement officers or other staff, she does so willingly and efficiently. … Without her efforts, we would be like lost sheep in the desert.”

On Monday Lovitt returned to Assaley’s home for the scheduled inspection and the two met for the first time. Parker said it was a “pleasant” encounter and described Lovitt as pleased at the progress made on the property. She will be back for another inspection next month. It is not known how long the inspections of the yard must continue.

As heartening as the neighborly assistance has been to Assaley, it has not overcome his feeling about the citation and two follow-up certified letters he received from the city, with their harsh language and impersonal tone. They contrast sharply with the small town he loved when he first started visiting in the postwar period.

“Reno is not what Reno used to be. … All of a sudden, it’s so strange. It’s not the same place. … I do think, I honestly think, if it wasn’t for the VA hospital here, I would move out of Reno, even though I used to love this place.”