By Eric Longabardi
An old friend of mine lives on Holiday Road in Newport Beach. His name is Dennis Holland. It had been a long time since we last talked. Last Monday I stopped by to say hello and talk to him about a growing controversy between him, his neighbors and the City of Newport Beach.
Dennis is not your typical neighbor. Don't get me wrong he's as friendly as they come, but not exactly the neighbor who you never notice. Two decades ago he even built an entire ship himself from scratch in his front yard. It took him 12 years to finish it. He dubbed the ship, a 118-foot U.S. revolutionary war era privateer The Pilgrim of Newport.
I hadn't seen Dennis in well over a decade. The last time was when his ship The Pilgrim was in Dana Point Harbor for a tall ship festival back in the late 1990's. I took a sail on the ship for the first time that day. It was a grand experience and one I'll never forget. It wasn't the first time I had been on-board the ship, but it was the first time I had ever set foot on her while she floated in the blue Pacific.
Dennis and his wife Betty were there that day. When I came aboard they looked at me like they knew me but weren't sure. In fact they did. I kept to myself and didn't jog their memory because I didn’t want to take away from the special experience I’d been looking forward to for nearly two decades. The Holland's hadn’t seen me (nor me them) in over 20 years. I couldn’t blame them for not recognizing me. Last time they saw me I was a kid, now I was an adult. The Holland's remembered me and thought they knew me (even 20 years later) because they did. They hadn’t seen me since I was about 9 or 10 years old. The hair color and waistline have changed some since then.
For most of my life I've been telling people on occasion that I helped build the Pilgrim of Newport with Dennis. It’s a stretch and mostly a tall sea tale, but it is based in truth. When I was a young kid, I grew up just behind where Dennis built his 118-foot tall ship. Dennis was a customer on my first paper route. Even back then I had a foothold in the world of journalism! I delivered the newspaper to a variety of people on my route, but the Holland’s house always stood out. Why? Dennis and his family happen to have a huge tall ship in their front yard! My days as a kid paperboy were pretty typical. I tossed papers and tried not to get bit by dogs that waited for me each day. My priority was getting subscribers to pay up on time when I came to collect for their subscriptions. Dennis may not have had the spare money to quickly fund the building of a tall ship on his own. That was part of the reason it took him 12 years to build his dream ship. Nonetheless, he always paid for his subscription to the paper and was a great customer.
Holland was also nice enough to let this local kid come-aboard on regular occasion after school and after his paper route was done to help him work on the ship. Dennis finished The Pilgrim and put her in the ocean where she belonged in 1983. I remember it well, the ‘big story’ of the huge ship being moved down Irvine Avenue to Newport Harbor and into the ocean for good.
What I also remember is that for those 12-years it took Dennis to build his ship and complete his dream, the entire Costa Mesa neighborhood Dennis lived in was always behind him supporting him in any way they could. As a kid I did what I could as well. Dennis showed me how he bent the giant beams into shape and I watched and sometimes helped him build the ship from the ground up. His wife Betty would make me lunch when I came to help out. At a certain point the entire family moved into the ship itself from the house in the back. I played with their kids and we always had fun. I vividly remember going to the bottom of the hull to see if anybody was home. It wasn't your typical front door.
Back then Dennis became somewhat of local and national celebrity. The kind of celebrity we need more of these days. He was featured in countless news stories and on TV. He was even featured on the old national TV show ‘Real People” (if you remember that one!) Dennis didn’t seek nor relish the limelight. He just took it with a grain of sea salt and kept on doing what he loved to do which was build wooden boats.
Dennis went on to sail and operate the Pilgrim of Newport for over a decade out of Long Beach and elsewhere before selling it. He not only was a man with a dream, but he lived it. The ship he built now operates out of the Ocean Institute in Dana Point Harbor. If you haven’t been there yet you should go. For kids it’s a must see in Orange County. Every year the 'Tall Ship festival' sails into the Dana Point harbor and features many of the ships on the west coast and beyond. My 7-year-old has already been twice. The Pilgrim of Newport had its name changed to The Spirit of Dana Point years ago.
Anybody who knows local history knows there is a lot more to the story as they say.
Now you would think Dennis Holland would be taking it easy after that kind of life experience, enjoying his latter years sailing off the coast of Newport and taking in the sun, sea and wind like the old throwback in time that he is. Well if you thought that you would be wrong. In 2002, he got word that he had prostate cancer and he's been fighting that ever since. Not much seems to slow Dennis down. Now Dennis has a new project and this time the neighbors (at least his immediate ones) are not too happy about it. Dennis doesn’t live in Costa Mesa any more; he now lives in Newport Beach. He used to have a 118-foot ship in his front yard thirty years ago, now he has a small one (in comparison) in his backyard. The boat is a 72-foot ketch built in 1916 named the Shawnee. Not much has changed over the years you could say.
(The Shawnee, built in 1916 (center in photo)
I drove over to the Holland’s house on a beautiful crisp winter day here in Newport. I had been by the house many times over the years and had seen the boat there before. I had never really felt comfortable saying hello. Maybe I’m a bit like Dennis, I don’t like attention much, but if it has a purpose and is thrust upon me I don’t shy away from it. I was stopping by to tell him that the kid who used to deliver his paper long ago had become a journalist and wrote a column about Newport Beach. I wanted to tell the story of what was going on with his latest boat project that had the neighborhood and the city all a buzz
As I walked up to the house (you can’t miss the boat, it’s stands out on the street sitting across from nicely manicured 'McMansions' and other homes), a truck was in the driveway and somebody was underneath it working on it. I asked if Dennis Holland was home. A young man slid out from under and said “yeah” I said you must be Dennis Jr. He said “yes” and I told him I was looking for his dad. He didn’t know who I was but I told him I thought we knew each other, but that when I was a lot younger and so was he.
He called out to his dad who then came out from somewhere behind the towering hull of the ship that sits on dry land looking like what some neighbors have come to call ‘The Ark’. (A reference to Noah's Ark) Before I said anything, Dennis said “I know you” and I responded, “yeah I think you do”. I then proceeded to tell him why I was there and that I was going to write a column about his little “problem” with City Hall and his latest boat project.
The story of Dennis’s upcoming fight with Newport Beach City Hall has been heating up lately. When Dennis first moved the boat to his property nearly five years ago, the City of Newport Beach told him it was fine to do so. The city has since changed its tune. In November of 2009, the city acting on complaints from the neighborhood passed an ordinance restricting long-term boat restoration projects in residential neighborhoods to six-months and requiring residents to get a permit issued by he city. Dennis got a permit last July and it expires at the end of this month. The boat is far from done. On the form there is a box to check with the expected completion date for the project. Dennis left the box blank.
When I talked to Dennis he showed me around the boat and explained that he thought the city was violating his constitutional rights by enacting an ordinance targeting him after the fact. He thinks his neighbors (the ones who want the boat to leave) should just leave him alone and the boat will leave the neighborhood for good when it's done. Now I have to admit the boat is not your typical backyard home renovation project. It sits next to a historic barn that Holland saved, restored and rebuilt on his property years ago when the O.C. Fairgrounds had plans to demolish it. The barn holds his extensive collection of classic antique cars.
Holland told me he plans on fighting the city’s new ordinance in court if need be. He didn’t seem to be ‘itching for a fight’ as they say, but he did tell me that if the city wanted a deadline for when the boat will be finished, his lawyers jokingly advised him to tell the city 100 years, since he can’t honestly estimate just how long it will take. He also didn’t seem to rule out moving the boat if the cost and expense of doing so was to be paid by someone (since he can't afford to do so) and the boat could withstand a move without being ruined for good.
When we spoke Holland’s intentions seemed clear to me. He doesn’t have plans for moving the boat until it's finished. He has not been shy about telling anybody who will listen to him just that. Dennis believes he’s just being honest, direct and not playing games. I admire that. I also understand the neighborhood frustrations with the amount of time the project has taken and some of the other issues they have made clear to newly elected Newport City Councilman Rush Hill who represents the area.
Based on his public statements, Councilman Hill seems to be squarely on the side of the city ordinance enacted in late 2009. He agrees with the views of neighbors who want the Shawnee to go. I tried to reach Councilman Hill yesterday and today but wasn’t successful. According to a recent story in The L.A. Times, Hill says that the whole situation "has stretched calmness and compassion to frustration and distrust," and that it was “only reasonable to require a date” for when the project will be completed. He also told The Times "A boat works construction yard should not be allowed in a residential district."
One of the most outspoken neighbors who wants Holland’s boat project out is Michael Lugo and his wife. The Lugos live next door to Holland. Lugo recently penned his opinion about what he called the unfair and slanted coverage the local newspaper The Daily Pilot has been giving the story in a letter to the editor published last week. Mr. Lugo makes some very valid points from his view of the situation, but fails to mention one thing that caught my attention after doing a little digging. Mr. Lugo has donated campaign money to Rush Hill.
When you have a vested interest in an issue before City Hall, giving money to a politician and having that politician come down on your side just doesn't seem to pass the smell test. According to campaign finance disclosure forms posted by the City of Newport Beach, that is exactly what seems to have happened. It was only $250, but it just smells a lot like the rotting sea soaked timber of the Shawnee to me. In my opinion this kind of thing really brings more blight to the neighborhood and the City of Newport Beach than any boat rebuilding project ever will.
As for the claim that Holland’s boat project is taking down property values in the area, from what I’ve seen, the property values don’t seem to be any more depressed than anywhere else in Newport Beach, based on the real estate market collapse of recent years.
Now I’m sure Rush Hill and Mr. Lugo will contend campaign contributions have nothing to do with anything related to the boat controversy and Mr. Holland. I’ll leave that to my readers to decide. As I stated above, I tried to reach Councilman Hill yesterday and today to get his take on this whole matter. He hasn’t responded back to me as of yet.
I did speak to Mr. Lugo at length about the boat, Mr. Holland and the entire issue. He was friendly, cordial and very clear that he doesn't see any connection between his financial campaign support of Russ Hill as a politician and the dispute over the boat in the neighborhood. He also believes sincerely in his mind that Dennis Holland is not being candid about when he says he plans on finishing the boat anytime soon. At this point Lugo told me that although all avenues for a mutually agreeable settlement of some kind have not been exhausted, he believes that may be the case.
I'm going to suggest that all the parties in this looming controversy get together and work out a reasonable plan so that the boat can continue to be worked on by Mr. Holland and his son and they can finish the project without a prolonged legal fight.
Mr. Holland was diagnosed with prostate cancer a few years ago and he doesn’t expect to be around when the day finally comes that the Shawnee finally touches the Pacific once again. Now if Mr. Lugo and others have the ability and inclination to fund politicians, my opinion would be his money and time would be better spent helping his neighbor do what all involved want despite their many differences. It seems to me everybody wants the Shawnee out of the neighborhood and back in Newport Harbor once again.
I'll venture a guess that Mr. Holland would even reserve a spot on the first sail for Mr. Lugo and his family on a restored Shawnee someday. If he’s not around to do so, he would make sure his son carried out his wishes. Even if he doesn’t survive long enough to see that day. Now I don’t know that for certain, but since I’ve known Mr. Holland for a long time he seems like the kind of guy who would make such a grand gesture to make peace with his neighbors, if they’re willing make peace with him.
It may be I am biased in this case, but my opinion (the point of an opinion column!) is I'm putting my money on Dennis Holland and the Shawnee if push comes to shove. I hope that doesn't happen for all involved.
We will just have to wait and see how this one turns out.