Moving Too Close to the Countryside : Housing: A mushroom farm has clouded nearby residents' dreams of bliss. But the operation's owner says his neighbors had better get used to the smell because it was there first.


Two years ago, Paul Gavin, a prosperous divorce attorney, built his 5,000-square-foot dream home atop one of the tallest hills in this pricey, rural community in northern San Diego County.

The eight-acre spread on Vista del Mar has a winding driveway, an avocado orchard and a panoramic view of the lush valley below. On a clear day you can see the ocean 10 miles away.

But something smells in Gavin's slice of heaven. Not to mention that his little paradise proved to be noisy as a truck stop and double as a maternity ward for flies.

Just down the hill from Gavin's swimming pool lies the busy San Luis Rey Mushroom Farm. Even the farm's owner, Ike Gill, says the mushroom farm, with its huge piles of steaming, greasy compost and its 16 industrial-size air conditioners humming around the clock, is not anybody's idea of an ideal neighbor.

But Gill, a onetime vice president for marketing at Perrier, says Gavin and the other angry homeowners had better learn to cope with some lifestyle adversity because his farm was here before their homes were built. And he is not going anywhere.

"This is a case of people moving out to the country and finding out there's an agricultural operation and they don't want it here," Gill said. "Well, tough luck."

Gavin and equally distressed members of the Hialeah Estates Property Owners Assn. and the Crooked Road Homeowners Assn. reply that Gill has greatly boosted the farm's capacity in the past year and turned it from a quaint nuisance to a full-blown hazard to their health and well-being.

The fungus fight is just the latest collision between high-yield agriculture and high-end living as the march of expensive homes continues into the prime growing fields of what locals call North County.

Other homeowner-inspired flaps have involved avocado groves, horse ranches, flower nurseries, chicken ranches, dairies, a potato farm and a cattle feed lot. The Big Three complaints: noise, smell and pollution.

"When homes get built next to an agricultural use that used to be in the middle of nowhere, you're going to have conflicts, without a doubt," said Armando Buelna, an aide to Supervisor John MacDonald, whose office is often called to mediate the disputes.

Homeowners in Bonsall's tony Hialeah area--where homes start at $500,000--have become so incensed about the mushroom farm that they recently passed a manifesto: "It is impossible to walk in this otherwise pastoral and lovely area due to the clouds of flies and worry of being overcome by the intense odor emanating from this obtuse and disconcerting affront to the senses."

In this genteel part of the world, that passes for a declaration of war.

And Gavin says he is about to fire the first shot: He is threatening a lawsuit if Gill does not do something in the next month about the compost, the deliveries of used bedding hay from the Del Mar racetrack, and trucks at all hours of the day and night.

As nasty as it has become, the Gavin-Gill clash may be only a preliminary bout to bigger battles.

The Board of Supervisors last month approved construction of 165 homes on one- to three-acre lots just east, and downwind, of the mushroom farm. The development, the Vista Valley Polo Club, was bitterly fought by Bonsall homeowners as an example of the suburban sprawl they moved to Bonsall, 40 miles north of San Diego, to avoid.

Gavin predicts that unless the developer provides full disclosure of the mushroom farm's aural and olfactory idiosyncrasies to prospective buyers, the litigation from new owners will light up the night sky for years to come.

Gill is unruffled by Gavin's threats and predictions, despite a visit from an FBI agent after a tip that the mushroom farm was discharging water laden with horse feces into a stream. The tip came attached to a video shot by Gavin in April. Gill said the incident caught by Gavin was a freak occurrence, the product of unseasonal rains.

Brown water from the mushroom farm is not new. The previous owner, who opened the farm in 1982 when the valley had only one nearby home, was fined $2,500 in 1990 for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Gill bought the farm 18 months ago, built a second greenhouse, and boosted production 40%. Up to 90 tons of hay for compost is dumped each week on a football field-size storage lot, which makes homeowners nervous about fires, especially after the recent spate of disastrous blazes in Southern California.

Depending on where they live in the valley, homeowners are subject to a different mix of sensory byproducts from Gill's business.

Gavin and his family get just a whiff of the manure but lots of truck and motor noise, blown up the hill by daily breezes. "The wind does not recognize property lines," Gavin said.

Linda Hale, president of the Crooked Road Homeowners Assn., lives about half a mile from the farm and gets only a little noise but lots of smell. At a recent garden party she had to keep her 65 guests indoors.

"It's so embarrassing," she said. "Its smell is just like cow----."

Leon Perrault, who lives even closer to the mushroom farm, gets noise and smell. "We're not against him growing mushrooms," Perrault said. "It's the animal waste and composting that make it unbearable to live in the valley."

As a farm, the mushroom plant falls under looser regulations than homeowners do when it comes to building an addition, storing combustible materials and meeting water pollution standards. This raises the ire of homeowners.

"It's like he's exempt from everything," Hales said.

Gill believes that he, not the homeowners, is the aggrieved party. "We are in absolute, full compliance with everything we're supposed to do."

Indeed, except for the FBI inquiry, there are no pending actions against Gill. The Fire Department, the zoning inspectors and the noise abatement technicians have given him a clean bill of health.

Further, Gill insists that the things his neighbors object to are absolutely essential to growing what his advertising calls "nature's best mushrooms." The farm produces 225,000 pounds of mushrooms monthly, modest by agribusiness standards.

The compost provides the nutrients to make the mushrooms grow. The air-conditioning units keep the growing sheds at 65 degrees; trucks and skiploaders bring the hay, move the compost, and then cart the mushrooms to market.

As Gill sees it, he should be regarded as a kind of local hero: employing more than 45 workers (who wear miners hats to pick the mushrooms in windowless buildings), helping the local economy despite the recession, and producing a tasty product for a mushroom-hungry public.

A lawsuit? "It's a cost of doing business," he said.

The Hales' ruined party? "I don't give a damn," he said.

Last April, Gill met with Gavin and others to give them a tour of the mushroom farm and explain his efforts to reduce noise and flies. Later when Gavin returned unescorted with his camcorder, Gill lost his cool.

The videotape captured Gill emphatically ordering Gavin off his farm: "I don't want you here when I'm not here. Enough is enough. . . . You're pushing. I don't like your attitude."

Meanwhile, Gavin is trying to sell his dream-home-gone-bad--assessed valuation $704,938--maybe to somebody with a higher tolerance for noise and odor.

"I'm outraged," he said. "I've placed the house on the market."

And, yes, the dispute has soured the mushroom farm's neighbors on mushrooms.

"My wife won't buy them anymore," Gavin said.

"I used to love mushrooms," Hale said. "But now I go to the store and see them and say, 'Yuck.' "

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