In L.A. County’s High Desert, ‘living free’ has its limits

Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County’s barren High Desert has long attracted those seeking seclusion in wide-open spaces, far beyond the reach of power lines, sewer pipes and pavement.

For many of these self-described “desert rats,” self-sufficiency is a matter of survival and pride: Solar panels and wind turbines provide power, enormous storage tanks provide water and a motley assortment of trailers, outbuildings and vehicles provides shelter from the withering sun.

But this “live free” mind-set is coming under increasing attack as county investigators crack down on code violations and nuisance complaints in the far-flung north. Citing widespread blight, squatter encampments and threats to public safety, Nuisance Abatement Teams are using surprise inspections and criminal charges to clear properties of illegal shelters, junk and animal pens.

Violators have been forced to pay fees and fines; some have had to tear down their dwellings. Others have faced trial, and a few have landed in jail.

Targets of the crackdown call the inter-agency teams the “goon squad” or the “Gestapo” and accuse them of storming their property with guns drawn — even firing at their dogs. They say county officials are violating their 4th Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure.

County officials say the crackdown is about responding to neighbors’ complaints and ensuring that violators are following the rules.

County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose 5th District encompasses the Antelope Valley, called for the creation of the abatement teams because blight, drug labs and illegal animal breeding were negatively affecting the quality of life there, his spokesman said.

Now, two Nuisance Abatement Teams operate in the High Desert at an annual cost of roughly $400,000. Eleven teams operate countywide.

Oscar Castaneda doubts that any neighbor reported him. The closest residence to his 21/2-acre Mojave Desert retreat is at least half a mile away. Sand, gravel and tumbleweed spread for as far as the eye can see. A 11/2-mile sand path, rutted and unimproved, leads to the property he bought more than two decades ago.

Castaneda, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, lives with his wife, Aracelis, in a double-wide trailer. They grow peaches, pears and pomegranates and use solar power and propane gas.

They’d never heard of the NAT before it showed up one morning.

The officials drove through the gates, ordered Castaneda to freeze and fanned out over his property, he said.

They listed a slew of violations. Among them: at least three unauthorized mobile homes and about 20 vehicles — some being fixed up for sale, others being repaired for members of Castaneda’s church. He was served with five code violations.

“I told them I have been here for 22 years and nobody has bothered me,” Castaneda said. To which he said one official replied: “Well, we are 22 years behind.”

KellyJean Chun, head deputy of the district attorney’s Community Prosecution Division, said no one likes being told what to do with his own property.

“But when you start to commit violations of the law with regards to building and safety code and other laws related to that,” she said, “that’s where these inspectors come in.”

Rogelio Maldonado, a lieutenant in the district attorney’s Bureau of Investigation, said law enforcement isn’t meant to intimidate, but to provide a sense of security.

During a recent outing, NAT inspectors arrived at a home on Littlerock’s East Avenue S-2 for a follow-up inspection. A previous visit had turned up several trailers, miscellaneous items and scattered junk. This day, roughly 60% of the site was cleared.

“You guys have done a fabulous job,” NAT coordinator Nancy Krogstie told the residents. “You’re making great progress.”

Later that day, a resident flagged down the team to thank them for their work.

“There’s riffraff along here,” Deone Kellems said. “People are not keeping up their property. The fence is coming down. There are too many squatters. I would like the NAT team to come out here more.”

Tim Grover, a code enforcement veteran with the Department of Public Works, said the NAT’s goal is voluntary compliance. That isn’t always possible, however.

On Monday, a jury at the Antelope Valley courthouse found Juniper Hills resident Timothy Dennis guilty of two misdemeanor counts of land-use violations and acquitted him of a third count.

Dennis’ attorney, Jamal Tooson, claimed that the county had wasted seven years pursuing his client and capriciously applied archaic and arguably ambiguous land-use codes.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Patrick David Campbell successfully argued that Dennis was illegally storing cargo containers and recreational vehicles on his 10-acre property, which Campbell told jurors “should be open field ... dirt. There shouldn’t be anything there.”

“Where does the county get the power to exert acts of control over land it doesn’t own?” asked Dennis, who faces up to a year in jail and plans to appeal. “They don’t have that power. This country has turned fascist.”

Members of the Antelope Valley Truckers Assn., who say they have been unfairly targeted by the NAT for parking big rigs and storing cargo containers in their yards, came out in force to support Dennis in court. Many share his sentiment that property owners should have the right to use their land as they see fit, and within reason.

“How is parking my truck on my property hurting anybody else?” asked Kevin Barber, the group’s president.

NAT critics also question the wisdom of sending property owners to jail.

“If they want to go after criminal matters, like meth labs, that’s fine. But we’re talking about land use here,” said Bill Guild, vice president of the truckers’ group.

Last March, Fred Kerpsie was jailed for a year after failing to rid his 12-acre mountaintop Acton property of tons of scrap metal, heavy machinery, tires, tools, old vehicles and trailers — including the family’s abode.

The ailing 67-year-old was since released on probation, but he still risks returning to jail for at least another year and a half if his property isn’t cleared by October.

“I’ve been crying and thinking we’ve got four boys, they grew up here,” Linda Kerpsie said as she and her son Nick recently sorted items to be salvaged or sold. “Because of the county, now ... we have to abandon our home. We’ve been here 34 years. It’s heartbreaking to leave it.”