Brush battle pits Rastafarian against tax collector

Reporting from Dehesa, Calif.

For three decades, former Marine-turned-Rastafarian Joseph Diliberti has lived on his three acres of paradise deep in rural eastern San Diego County: building clay dwellings, playing his flute, reading Thoreau (“I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately”) and radiating peace and harmony.

But six years ago when the local fire district sent him a bill for $27,552 for cutting down what firefighters characterized as fire-prone weeds on his property, he declined to pay, just as Thoreau refused to pay his delinquent poll taxes.

Diliberti resented that a private company hired by the fire district came onto his property while he was not there. Also, he says that what the fire department calls combustible weeds were actually fire-resistant, native California plants.

With penalties and interest, the bill has grown to more than $62,000. Diliberti, who was injured in Vietnam, lives on a monthly disability check and says he cannot afford to pay the county.

“A Rasta-man doesn’t worry about these things,” he said.

Maybe not, but the taxman does. The county tax collector is threatening to auction off Dilberti’s property sometime after July 1 to pay for back taxes,.

David Nissen, division chief of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District, wishes it had never come to this. But he said Diliberti did not respond to warning notices and later did not attend a governing board hearing where his bill was discussed. Records show that more than 800 cubic yards of brush were removed.

Diliberti filed a lawsuit but lost. He blames his attorney.

“This whole thing is tragic,” said Nissen, who said a concerned neighbor alerted the fire district to the overgrown weeds. “I just wish Mr. Diliberti had been more engaged from the beginning…. We need to stress the fact that little fires get big.”

No one disputes that brush fires are a serious matter in the backcountry of San Diego County. Fires in 2003 and 2007 destroyed thousands of homes and blackened hundreds of thousands of acres.

Diliberti declined to give his age (“Rasta-men don’t worry about age”) but allowed that he was 18 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1965. After service in Vietnam as an infantry “grunt,” he settled in San Diego and worked as a contractor.

Then in 1979, with some profits from home building, he moved to a hilly piece of property east of El Cajon where the only inhabitants were frogs, skunks, kangaroo rats, rattlesnakes, raccoons and a variety of birds.

“I got rid of all my complications so I could come here and live simply,” said Diliberti, his native Brooklyn still evident in his voice. (It was during his youth in Brooklyn that he met a Jamaican woman who introduced him to Rasta.)

Occasionally he goes fishing or kayaking in Baja California. He built a kiln for his pottery. The property has no electricity; a well provides water. Diliberti has rigged up a privy; he also built a small sweat-lodge for spiritual cleansing.

“The reason I stand out is because no one else lives this way anymore,” he said. “The laws are against people living his way. Thoreau said that government is best that governs least. I believe that.”

He is not a hermit. He likes visitors and is a soft touch for anyone down on his luck who needs a place to stay. He has a romantic streak.

“I have female companionship come and go, but I live alone, in my own space,” he said. His five daughters have three mothers. He built a treehouse atop a huge California live oak for his daughters, his grandchildren and their friends.

His property taxes are a mere $850 a year, but when he refused to pay the brush abatement bill, the county would not accept just his property tax payment.

Even if he had the money, Diliberti said, he would not pay. “It’s not about money, it’s about principle,” he said. “If I give in, I’m setting a precedent for them to do it again.”

Diliberti can claim at least a partial victory. Amid a cascade of complaints from other property owners about the private company, the district terminated the contract a few months after Diliberti’s property was cleaned.

His cause has been championed by Richard Halsey, director of the Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute. To Halsey, Diliberti is another in a line of victims of private companies acting as “bounty hunters” without regard to property rights.

Last week, Halsey wrote to the chairman of the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water decrying the “inappropriate and overzealous enforcement of vegetation clearance laws.”

Diliberti said he is not worried about the possibility of his land being sold from beneath his feet. He puts his faith in the late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, considered by some Rastafarians as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

“I pray with the sagebrush,” he said. “Because my sagebrush is not their rosebush, that doesn’t give them permission to cut it. I have a right to live my life as a Rasta-man.”