Slab City Crisis : ‘Free’ Space Is Last Stand of Squatters

Times Staff Writer

Every winter, thousands of squatters flock to an abandoned Navy base in the desert east of this tiny Imperial County town not far from the Salton Sea, wanting nothing more than to be left alone until warm weather arrives.

Retirees pulling expensive mobile homes--so-called “snowbirds” fleeing the Eastern winter--and swap meet gypsies living in battered school buses settle on bare concrete slabs poured by the Navy years ago. And the down-and-out pitch tents on the red clay.

But now the existence of Slab City--or The Slabs, as it is known around here--is in jeopardy, campers say.


During evenings, the desert air is filled with citizens band radio chatter speculating on the latest rumors that the state plans to evict them and let a developer turn the area into a recreational vehicle park, a form of regimentation even more noxious to these free spirits than government controls.

Trying to Fight Back

Some couples wear matching Hawaiian shirts and sport diamond pinky rings. Others dress in scruffy old jeans. But all protest that their freedom is being threatened, and they are trying to fight back. After all, they’ve been coming here for decades, camping rent-free wherever they liked.

“Most people out here in The Slabs have fought the system all of their lives, and they just want to get away and be left alone,” said Joe Phillips, 59, a San Bernardino building contractor who has a large motor home, a three-wheel sand buggy and a giant TV antenna dish.

No matter that there is no electricity or that the water must be hauled in from Niland, three miles away. And who needs sewers? Slab City campers just get out the shovel, dig a hole, plumb it to the trailer and cover it over--a system that concerned county health officials call “gopher-holing.”

State and county officials say that they can no longer ignore the fact that as many as 3,000 vehicles--housing an estimated 6,000 people--set up camp on The Slabs each winter. On the surface, the site looks neatly kept, officials acknowledge, but they are worried about the impact of that many people discharging waste into the gopher holes.

Potential Health Problems

“There are potential health problems, and the state is liable for what happens on their land,” said James Kelly, an Imperial County planner. And Tom Wolf, a county health official explained: “The county’s regulations do not apply on state lands. We see a problem but can’t do anything about it.”

“The numbers out there have skyrocketed in the last three years,” said Don Reese, senior state land agent. “Because it’s an old military base, there are open manholes and other hazards. There is no central garbage collection. We have no idea where the sewage goes once it’s in the ground.”

When state and county officials recently inspected the area, they discovered that a thriving business district had sprung up along what is called “swap meet row.” Entrepreneurs of every stripe display a variety of wares, from Kewpie dolls to portable generators and pet supplies. One fellow had a bin full of old tires.

One angry operator of an outdoor hamburger stand grabbed a tire iron and chased a government inspector who dared to ask for his health inspection certificates. The vendor was later arrested for assault with a deadly weapon, Wolf reported.

Most of this 640-acre dismantled Navy base is overgrown with desert brush and scrubby trees, but the paved streets and old concrete slabs and foundations are still visible. So are the World War II-era sentry boxes.

The season in Slab City starts in October, and new arrivals park anywhere they want. By late April, most of the residents move on, driven out by the rising desert heat. Yet even in the peak of the season, the camps are so scattered that Slab City does not appear to be crowded.

For people like Ken and Susie Pelton and their seven children, Slab City is a haven. The Peltons spent 18 months on the road traveling between swap meets in an old school bus, trying to make a living until Ken could find permanent work.

“The problem with this country is that poor people have run out of free places,” Pelton said. “That’s why we like this place. No one hassles you here, and you don’t stick out like a sore thumb. There’s breathing room out here.”

Youngsters at Play

As he talked, a yellow school bus from Niland rumbled up and dropped off a dozen youngsters, who scattered to their camp homes. Here and there youngsters rode bicycles; others played in the sand.

Two blocks over, Bill Edwards, 35, and his wife, Shauna, were polishing a large house trailer belonging to Don Whipple of Boise, Ida. Inside, Whipple and his wife were watching soap operas on TV. “Those two kids (The Edwards couple) are working their heads off to make something of themselves,” Whipple said. “When they came here, they only had a tent to live in. Now they got a camper and a pickup.”

Edwards took time out from his work to explain that he charges a dollar a foot to wash, wax and polish recreational vehicles and trailers. “We got here Nov. 8 with $2.65 in our pockets, and our old ’64 station wagon gave out,” he said, “so we were stuck. But we’ve done very well, earned about $6,000 and paid cash for our 15-foot camper and (used) pickup. We aren’t on welfare and don’t owe anybody anything.” Edwards plans to continue his business by following the snowbirds to their summer haunts.

Christian Center

Over at the nonprofit Campers Christian Center--a double-wide trailer belonging to Ralph and Dorothy Hoefflinger--several locals were at work on arts and crafts projects. Dorothy Hoefflinger was sitting behind a tiny table, handing out messages, mail and packages as part of her self-appointed capacity as postmistress and camp registrar.

Nearby, her husband stood behind his lectern, initially reluctant to discuss the controversy over The Slabs. “We don’t want to take sides,” he said. “We’re here to do the Lord’s work.”

But then his anger overcame him and he fumed: “I wish the state would keep its stupid hands off, leave it like it is.”

State officials, perplexed by the rapid growth of the impromptu community, want to give the land to the county or sell it. But the county doesn’t want responsibility for it, and no buyers have come forward.

Development Proposed

However, Doyle Cape of nearby Brawley said he would lease the land and develop a multimillion-dollar recreational vehicle park with 3,500 spaces, a swimming pool, golf course, entertainment areas and shops.

The proposal by Cape’s Big Foot Enterprises sent the residents of Slab City into a tizzy.

“I don’t like living in trailer parks. They’re too regulated, too cold and indifferent,” said Ardel McNurney, 50, a retired Wenatchee, Wash., policeman who heads the residents’ committee opposing development.

“This is a completely different way of life,” he said. “It’s family out here. This doesn’t have a damn thing to do with money. It has to do with saving a way of life.”

The committee petitioned the county to take over the land and establish a primitive camping area, which would provide the least restrictive environment for Slab City residents, McNurney said. The campers even pledged to assist the county financially in the takeover.

The Imperial County Board of Supervisors rejected the idea. “We have a private developer interested . . . and we would rather (that) private enterprise developed the area,” Supervisor Val Blume said.

The state and the county are working together with the developer to complete an environmental impact study of the proposal. Once that report is complete, Big Foot Enterprises must negotiate a lease with the state.

Feeling of Pessimism

“We’re having some doubts about whether this project is feasible without major financial backing,” said county planner James Kelley, who pointed out that in addition to proposing to spend $18 million on the park, the developer has talked about spending millions more to develop geothermal energy to power the facility.

All of this talk has generated a feeling of pessimism at The Slabs that was summed up by Larry Bauer, a mechanic who travels with his wife and daughter in a converted Greyhound bus. “I don’t think much will come of the controversy over the RV park, but it’s obvious the bureaucrats want to shut the place down,” he said.

Glancing around, he added: “I’d hate to see that; this is too good a deal to lose. We’ve been coming here for six years, and I’d sure hope that it’s here when we come back next year.”