Despite orders from Orange County to evict 160 tenants from his property, Sam Porter let the eviction deadline lapse Thursday without removing anyone from the ramshackle encampment they occupy on Trabuco Highlands Ranch.
Rather than evict people he considers "family," the 63-year-old rancher vowed to fight the county's effort to dismantle Porterville, an isolated community allegedly rife with zoning, health and fire-code violations.
"I'd like the county to say, 'We're in deep waters,' " Porter said. "I've got a very good hand against the county. My ultimate goal is for the county to back off."
In an attempt to foil the Thursday deadline, Porter himself has served a second round of eviction notices on the residents, which, he says, could stave off the county for at least two weeks.
Porter also is referring his tenants to civil-rights attorneys and has encouraged them to fight their evictions even if it means taking him to court.
"When the two weeks are up, it's up to the county to physically move them," Porter said.
About 50 poor immigrant families inhabit a 40-acre plot on the ranch, which is off Trabuco Creek Road east of Rancho Santa Marguerita. The settlement of travel trailers and homemade cabins has communal toilets and showers, but no electricity.
On Thursday afternoon, a boy pushed a girl along the dusty, unpaved road that leads to the encampment. Chickens ran between the homes, and washing was hung on clotheslines throughout the camp. Residents said they do not have plans to go anywhere. And there was no sign of anybody preparing to move.
"Nobody is leaving because Sam says he is going to fight this," said Leona Moreno, 24, who has lived in a trailer inside the ranch for six years. "We're all waiting till the last minute. But it's not as if we have a choice, because we have no place else to go."
County officials, who have claimed the settlement is unfit to live in, said Thursday they are not sure whether they will take any further action against Porter.
Porter, whose ranch has been inspected by the County Environmental Management Agency and the Fire Department, already faces 18 counts of violating county zoning and fire ordinances. His trial is set to begin March 5 in Orange County Municipal Court.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Elizabeth A. Henderson, the prosecutor, said Porter is charged with three counts of zoning violations that go back three years and 13 counts of fire code violations that include using open incinerators and building fires near dry brush. The violations carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail for each count, in addition to fines.
Norma Herbel, who is acting code enforcement manager for the county, contends that Porter has been exploiting his tenants for rent, while allowing them to live in deplorable conditions.
"There's no water out there, no electricity, and they have fires in cans," Herbel said. "No one wants to go out there and strong-arm these people. But we can't allow such unhealthy conditions."
But the ranch is home, Moreno said.
"Here I have a kitchen and a bed and a shower just down the road. Anywhere else I could afford would be a room in somebody else's house."