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Compost Crusader

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly three decades, Tim Dundon meticulously fed his obsession to create the towering monument it is today: a 40-foot-high mountain of decomposed mulch, kitchen scraps and dung.

Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, year after year, he has tended the decaying pile of compost that dwarfs his shabby two-story home and stretches the length of five buses parked end to end.

The fecund heap fuels his vibrant one-acre jungle in Altadena of exotic towering cactuses, azaleas and banana trees and produces compost of great renown--at least in gardening circles.

“It’s an organic Disneyland,” the 58-year-old Dundon said from behind his long, gray beard. “This is my monument to Mother Earth that shows waste can be converted into something that restores life.”

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County officials have let it grow and grow and grow for 27 years. But now, to Dundon’s horror, they say it is time for it to go.

Dundon’s heard that tune before and, with the aid of a surprisingly large group of supporters, has repeatedly saved his treasured compost pile, which emits no noticeable odor. But this time the county insists it isn’t bluffing. Officials even ordered a skip-loader to carve into the heap after Dundon missed a Jan. 10 deadline to remove it himself.

But then, as has often happened in this saga, the mound won a reprieve.

The county gave the pile an extension--the new deadline is Feb. 12--after some residents of unincorporated Altadena called their county supervisor’s office to protest. When the skip-loader moved in on the pile recently, the Rev. C.R. Tillman, a member of the Altadena Town Council, joined Dundon atop the heap in protest.

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“It’s a tough situation, the community likes it,” said Conal McNamara, a deputy for county Supervisor Mike Antonovich. “Maybe there is some way to make it smaller.”

Supporters of Dundon say the pile is an inspiring example.

“They’re raping a local landmark. He is just trying to promote the planet,” said Jim Norman, a local tree service owner. “Tim’s compost is the best around. Everyone in the community believes his place is an asset.”

Dundon is a cause celebre in Altadena, a community of 43,000 at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains known for its love of eccentrics. And Dundon is one of the more memorable ones. He sometimes adopts the persona of his alter ego, a character he calls Zeke the Sheik, and once marched in Pasadena’s wacky Doo Dah Parade carrying his pet yam.

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This compost guru, as many environmentalists call him, likes to speak in rhyme, and without warning breaks into song, especially Beatles numbers, to make a point.

“Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it seems as though they’re here to stay. I believe in yesterday,” he sang as he examined how the skip-loader bit into his heap before aborting its mission.

A former plasterer and ironworker, Dundon said his pile began with a vision in February 1973. “It showed me this was something that would change the world and make it into a better, more peaceful place,” he said.

He insists the compost heap is not a business. He gives the compost away for free, he said, but does charge to deliver it. Dundon, who wears old jeans, worn jogging shoes and a fading gray sweater, said he earns income from some rental property.

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The heap sits atop a strip of land owned by the neighboring Mountain View Cemetery, which allows him to use it for free.

Various county departments have tried to bring down the pile over the years, but local opposition has stalled each effort.

Dundon incurred the wrath of the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 1990 when, twice in one month, heat generated by decomposition caused the manure to combust, sending smoke billowing and flames leaping.

Shortly after, the county Department of Health Services condemned the heap as a health hazard and illegal dump. Dundon’s friends established a legal defense fund--raising money selling T-shirts with photographs of Dundon as Zeke--and a local public relations woman represented him pro bono.

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Two of his supporters--a pair of Ivy League-educated lawyers--eventually persuaded the health agency to halt legal action.

The latest offensive against the compost pile was launched in 1999 by the county Fire Department, which deemed the pile a fire hazard. A year earlier, some firefighters were injured breathing fumes from a stubborn fire at a giant commercial compost business in Santa Clarita, so the department began looking at other compost operations more suspiciously.

John Gutwein, a senior county planner, said the pile violates the county’s zoning rules. “This is not appropriate use for single-family residential zoning,” he said. “It needs to be in an industrial zone.”

Creative Solutions

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Gutwein said all those involved are seeking creative solutions, but for a pile that size, the land must be rezoned.

“Mr. Dundon is a very nice man, conducting a large-scale composting operation. Frankly, he is doing very positive things,” Gutwein said. “But Mr. Dundon is going to have to move the pile somewhere else.”

Last fall Gutwein sent a letter to the Mountain View Cemetery board, telling it the pile must go. Gerald Nash, cemetery spokesman, said the board had agreed to let Dundon use the land, but still reserved the right to terminate the pact with 60 days’ notice.

That notice ran its course last month, and when Dundon’s pile remained, the cemetery board sent in the skip-loader.

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“We had no choice; [the county] threatened to fine us $1,000 a day and give us six months in jail,” Nash said. “No sooner had we started than the county called and asked us to back off.”

Dundon said the Fire Department is wrong to believe his pile is combustible. To prove his point to a reporter, he offered last week to demonstrate with a propane torch. He was assured that wasn’t necessary.

With a temporary stay of execution for his heap, Dundon said he is exploring turning his whole operation into a nonprofit organization and is discussing acquiring the land from the cemetery. He is scheduled to meet today with county officials to discuss the fate of the giant mound.

Dundon, who can sound like an MIT scientist one minute and a mystic the next, is the son of an aerospace executive and a concert violinist. His life, he observed, has often revolved around the number two.

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He has been twice divorced, has two children, worked for Plasterer’s Local 2 and on California 22. And his heap reached 200 feet in width when the current problems began.

To preserve it, he said, he is willing to go to court or jail. He’s run afoul of the law before. In 1985 he appeared in Pasadena Superior Court, dressed as Zeke in a full caftan, and testified almost exclusively in rhyme.

Despite what one prosecutor characterized as “the funniest, most hilarious trial he had ever experienced,” Dundon was convicted of cultivating, possessing and selling marijuana.

“The marijuana was merely the nurse that would reimburse my purse and allow me to throw your whole universe into reverse and make things get better instead of worse,” he told a reporter at the time.

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He spent 18 days in jail, which he said is easier than tending to his pile.


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