June 22, 2007

Obscure law that benefits squatters criticized

Land Disputes: The Riverside County tax collector targets the state’s adverse possession process.

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]
San Bernardino and Pass Edition

Escalating tensions in a Wildomar property dispute have spurred a Riverside County official to seek changes to an obscure state law that allows squatters to take land from unsuspecting owners.

"If someone is squatting on a piece of your land or someone is in your house, you usually can call the sheriff and the government comes to help you out," Treasurer-Tax Collector Paul McDonnell said.

That's not always the case with adverse possession, a law rooted in Anglo-Saxon history that McDonnell said has created "a cottage industry of people who are attempting to capitalize on the weakness of others."

Almost every state allows adverse possession in some form. California law allows an individual to acquire title to a property if they've fenced it, openly occupied it without permission and paid property taxes continuously for five years.

McDonnell, president of the California Association of County Treasurer-Tax Collectors, said he is asking his organization to support legislation that would allow tax collectors to return payments to those who are using adverse possession to "squat on the county property-tax system."

"We need to be given clear authority to intervene on behalf of the legitimate taxpayer," McDonnell said.

Right now, McDonnell said, the county must send a letter to the title owner and the non-owner asking the individuals if they want a refund.

McDonnell said a change in the tax code would allow the county to immediately peel off the payment from the adverse possessor and return it with no questions asked.

McDonnell said he was surprised to discover there are 20 cases in Riverside County where adverse possession is being used in an attempt to take title to properties.

San Bernardino County Assistant Treasurer-Tax Collector Annette Kerber said adverse possession has been an issue in her county as well.

"Sometimes people will come right out and say they are trying to pay taxes to acquire property through adverse possession," Kerber said.

Even though the title holder has already paid their taxes, there are times the non-owner will insist his payment be applied. The money will be refunded, but Kerber said the non-owner has a receipt of property-tax payment.

Attorney Spencer Weisbroth, whose San Francisco firm's Web site details how adverse possession works, said the process is getting tougher to execute.

Most people who are attempting adverse possession fail because they fall short on one or more of the requirements -- usually the payment of taxes, Weisbroth said.

Neighbors' Property

Earlier this year, a half-dozen Wildomar landowners complained to county supervisors that Jeff Downtain, 47, had erected a large fence and installed guards to bar them from their rural property. Some said they had been threatened. "No trespassing" signs have been posted outside the large compound where the Downtains live with their six children.

Downtain said he ran a free food program for the needy until October when code enforcement and sheriff's deputies raided the property. He also said he runs the Jesus People ministry from his home.

Last month, county supervisors gave the Downtains and the six owners of land within the fenced area 90 days to clean up their properties. But the six owners are unable to gain access.

Senior Code Enforcement Officer James Monroe said if the Downtains don't clean up the lots, the county will get a court order and do it for them. That would include razing the unpermitted house where the Downtains live, Monroe said.

Monroe estimated the cost of cleanup to be between $35,000 and $50,000.

District Attorney Rod Pacheco's office is conducting a criminal real-estate fraud investigation into the Downtain family's efforts to take their neighbors' land.

Downtain said he has broken no laws. He questioned why a criminal investigation is under way when the issue of adverse possession is a civil matter that should be settled in civil court.

Fenced Off, Frustrated

Frustrated property owners, some with mounting legal costs, say their hands are tied.
"The Downtains' whole MO is to prey on the elderly, pay their (property) taxes, put their names on the title as a tenant in common, and take control of these people's properties," real-estate agent Gregory Higgins said.

"They will confront you. They are violent people," said Higgins, whose elderly client's property has been fenced off.

Downtain denies threatening Higgins or any of the other neighboring property owners.

Riverside resident Barbara Innes tried to list two lots for sale in 2004, only to be told by her mortgage company that there was a "cloud" on the title. The "cloud" turned out to be a claim placed by Hidden Haven Christian School, a home-school run by the Downtains for their children.

Since then, a surveyor and a real-estate agent both quit, claiming they were threatened. Innes said she doesn't have the means to fight.

One Wildomar property owner, Martin Hicks, has sued the Downtains. Hicks, who is represented by his attorney son, Robert Hicks, is scheduled to be back in court on the issue today.

The Hicks say the Downtains scoped out the vacant property around their home, created false business identities and filled in a false blank grant deed purporting to convey the vacant property to themselves, according to court records.

The Downtains maintain in court filings that they are entitled to the property.

Another property owner, Karen Brown, said her attorney advised her it could cost up to $25,000 for her to wrestle her Wildomar property back, although she still has title to it.

She and her sister-in-law Letty Brown own about an acre-and-a-half between them, all of which has been fenced off and loaded up with piles of wood and an old boat.

"Nobody wants to get into anything like this," Innes said. "He's a lawbreaker and we're the ones being penalized."

Longtime Resident

Downtain said his family, which homesteaded 15 acres in the 1920s, has lived on the property for decades.

As he walked among the shady oaks he's known since childhood, Downtain said he could probably have the area cleaned up in 10 days. He passed an old Air Stream trailer, slightly askew, with a rusting screen flapping in the breeze.

There is no electrical service but Downtain said the sun and wind fuel batteries that provide power to the family's home.

Monroe said living conditions on the property are dangerous.

The accumulation of stuff is a testament to his family's uninterrupted presence on the properties over three generations, Downtain said. He called the other property owners "absentee landlords" who've never cared for the land.

"I am a prudent person. I am not a raging maniac," Downtain said.

He described his struggle as a fight for the future of his children.

Downtain said the planned widening of Bundy Canyon Road and a subdivision proposed nearby worries him.

"This is the evidence that I have been here all my life. Nobody has made any attempt whatsoever to maintain this subdivision except my family," Downtain said. "All my life, nobody has ever been around here saying anything to anybody."

June 21, 2007

Control over roads in wilderness now a court issue


While Utah and Alaska have been in the forefront of local attempts to assert broad rights-of-way on roads that lie within the boundaries of federal lands, two cases in California appear to be the next front in the ongoing skirmish over the effects of a Civil War-era law.

In the latest action, a federal judge ruled last week that a group of environmental advocates must be allowed to intervene in a case brought against the National Park Service by California's Inyo County. The county's suit is seeking "quiet title" to four roads within federal lands near Death Valley National Park.

In another case, San Bernardino County officials are similarly seeking access and control over 14 roads and spurs, covering about 240 miles in the Mojave National Preserve. These cases join more publicized actions by Utah officials to claim control over roads and highways in various federal lands (Land Letter, June 7).

Enacted as part of the Mining Act of 1866, now known as Revised Statute 2477, this was a relatively simple measure that afforded public rights-of-way through public lands that were not specifically reserved for public uses. Its purpose was to encourage the local construction of roads and highways as the nation was undergoing tremendous growth and westward expansion.

Though R.S. 2477 was repealed by Congress in 1976, there was left behind a grandfathered provision covering rights-of-way on roads that counties or other jurisdictions could prove were built or maintained as part of the local highway system.

There were differing standards. BLM had a stricter requirement for proof, for instance, while under Utah law the state and counties claim road ownership by showing 10 years of continuous use prior to 1976.

The issue became even more complicated following a 2005 ruling from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld Utah's interpretation of what constitutes local control over a road in question. As one of her last acts before leaving office, former Interior Secretary Gale Norton issued a guidance memo to agencies that spelled out a broader policy approach that would essentially accept states' and local governments' claims over roads (Land Letter, March 23, 2006).

Prospectors, settlers and ORVs Environmentalists fear the order makes it easier for localities to perform widespread, landscape-changing highway maintenance and construction on public lands, possibly leading to rights-of-way claims in national parks, wildlife refuges, national monuments and wilderness areas.

More recently, Colo. Rep. Mark Udall (D) has proposed an amendment to the 2008 Interior appropriations bill that would prevent local or state governments from claiming federal lands under R.S. 2477 (E&E Daily, June 14).

In fact, the standards being proposed by California counties in their suits appear even broader than those asserted by Utah in its successful challenge. Under California law, stated the San Bernardino suit, "the acceptance of R.S. 2477 right-of-way could be established by public use without formal action by any public agency."

Almost any local action, including use, public repair, depiction of the road on public maps, or inclusion in the county highway maintained road system, would suffice, San Bernardino argued in its complaint filed in U.S. District Court against Interior last Oct. 26 [County of San Bernardino v. USA; CV 06-1179 VAP].

Up until the creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994, the county claims, the Bureau of Land Management did not require any notice of highway maintenance or construction, but once the preserve was formalized and turned over to the National Park Service, "NPS has restricted access to materials required for maintenance and ... assumed regulatory responsibility on the roads without county input or approval."

The county's claim covers 14 roads or sections totaling about 241 miles. "These are roads that the county has been maintaining, some before the turn of the century," said Mitchell Norton, deputy county counsel. "These are not trails like is Death Valley. Almost all are paved. Nobody is blazing new trails here."

Norton and colleague Charles Scolastico told Land Letter that they expect to enter mediation with the federal agencies to try to reach an agreement before the case comes to trial.

In contrast, the Inyo County case looks to be setting up a court fight that will involve the various agencies as well as a group of non-government organizations. The Inyo complaint describes four relatively short and remote sections of road — the longest being 18 miles — that is historically connected to long-abandoned mining sites at Greenwater.

In three instances, the county claims, NPS siad the roads were part of the Death Valley Wilderness and it closed the roads and put up signs to that effect. "These roads were part of a network of roads that enabled prospectors and settlers to explore and establish communities in the eastern section of the county at the beginning of the twentieth century," wrote the county. "These roads have existed for generations as a cultural and recreational heritage for citizens of Inyo County and of the region. The county has a unique and independent responsibility to preserve this heritage into the future," it further explained to the court.

Charlie Callagan, a park ranger at the Death Valley National Park, explained that at least one of the contested roads, called Padre Point, a half-mile gravel spur to a view point, was at one time mistakenly mapped within the boundaries of the wilderness area. However, the dead-end strip "is not closed and we have no intention of closing it," he said.

There were three other roads: about half of the 17-mile-long Petro Road, which accesses Native American petroglyph sites; 3 miles of Lost Section, south of Greenwater area; and the Last Chance Road and trail, have been closed because they are part of designated wilderness, he said. The 8 miles of Last Chance right-of-way being claimed by the county never had a road, he said, but includes a hiking and cattle path.

This issue of local governments taking title to dusty trails as if they were developed highways has become a core issue for conservationists and environmental groups. In some areas of the West, local officials have declared R.S. 2477 rights of way over undeveloped trails in wilderness areas and through private lands, leading to numerous court cases, such as the high-profile fight over off-road vehicle use at the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in Utah.

Trails to highways?

That same fear is at play in the Death Valley case, and this month a coalition of six groups, including the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the National Parks Conservation Association, successfully petitioned the court to intervene in the case.

In a June 14 ruling, District Court Judge Anthony Ishii ruled that the groups have a substantial interest in the case, even though they do not assert any ownership rights over the properties in question [Inyo County v. Interior; U.S. District Court; No. CV F 06-1502 AWI]. What is at stake is not merely title to the contested land, Ishii wrote. "The action also seeks to settle rights to particular uses of the land, substantially influencing the character of surrounding land vis-a-vis the land's wilderness designation," he wrote. The action could involve giving the county the right "to convert what is currently a pedestrian trailway devoid of motorized traffic into a two-lane rural highway." Because the groups have actively advocated establishing the wilderness areas in the first place, including the blockage of rights-of-way in order to enhance wilderness values, and the suit seeks to "undue precisely what the proposed intervenors worked to accomplish," Ishii held that the groups have shown their "substantial protectable interest" in the litigation.

The ruling was hailed by the groups. "Inyo County's land grab could undermine the very reasons Death Valley is such an iconic landscape," said Ted Zukoski, an attorney with Earthjustice representing the groups. "The court understood that and understood that those with the strongest interest in protecting Death Valley should have a seat at the table."

"The county is making claims within the wilderness area, and in this instance, it's a direct threat to the wilderness designation," said Kristen Brengle of the Wilderness Society. "If a claim is going to hurt protected land or land that should be under protection, we're going to get involved," she said.

Deborah DeMeo, program manager for NPCA, said her group is committed to balancing interests for recreation in parkland, including allowing off-road vehicles where appropriate. However, in this case, "It's not appropriate for them in wilderness lands with a quality of quiet. Our concerns have more to do with the upsetting of the ecosystem," she said.

Inyo County attorneys were unavailable for comment this week. A status conference in the matter is expected later this summer.

June 18, 2007

A war on memory

By Michael Medved
Yahoo! News – USA

What shocking visual image inspires so much fear, disgust and outrage that even in this era of unfettered free expression, federal courts feel compelled to take drastic steps to cover it up?

Judges will rarely use their power to hide public sculptures depicting sadistic brutality, or to obscure billboards peddling sex and nudity, but in the California desert they've ordered the concealment of a simple white cross that has honored the nation's war dead for more than 70 years.

In 1934, the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a monument on a barren hilltop known as "Sunrise Rock" in the Mojave National Preserve to commemorate "the dead of all wars." More than a half-century later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California challenged the memorial, claiming that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the cross (recognized by the government as a war memorial) stood on public land. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the dismantling of the monument, but Congress took action in 2004 to authorize the transfer of the ground surrounding the cross to private parties.

A federal district judge invalidated that transaction, even as officials responsible for the desert refuge took steps to hide the cross while the legal wrangling continued. Government agents covered the offending crossbeam with boards, making it look like a crude screen, or a shallow box, perched incongruously on a stick in the middle of the California desert.

An easy, favorite target

The absurd status of this ongoing struggle shouldn't obscure its serious and alarming undercurrents - including a common attitude among militant "separationists" that treats Christian symbols with more hostility and less tolerance than those of any other religious tradition.

Imagine that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum decided for some reason to erect a large Star of David on top of its stark building in Washington. Would the ACLU object to the raising of this religious (and, yes, national) symbol on a structure that has been built, after all, on federal land? In the unlikely event that anyone stood up to oppose such symbolism, reasonable people would respond that the Jewish star represented an appropriate commemoration to the millions of predominantly Jewish victims honored by the museum.

By that logic, a cross (whether in the Mojave Desert or in another controversial war memorial on the top of Mount Soledad near San Diego) represents a similarly suitable tribute to fallen warriors who have died for the United States - because the overwhelming majority of those soldiers considered themselves Christians. To this day, more than 85% of Americans describe themselves as Christians, and many recent studies (including the excellent Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan) report that devout Christian believers are, if anything, overrepresented in our volunteer Army.

The government recently authorized a Wiccan symbol (a five-pointed star, or pentacle) to appear on the military cemetery gravestone of a GI who died in Afghanistan - despite objections by some Christian activists that Wicca (a proudly pagan tradition that incorporates elements of druidical nature worship) carries unwholesome associations with witchcraft and Satanism. The armed forces rightly gave the family of the fallen soldier the right to choose its own symbolism in tribute to him, even if that symbol appeared on public property. After all, the military already allows grave site recognition of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism and even atheism (represented by a stylized diagram of an atom).

In the same sense that no one should feel offended by honoring the war dead with symbols of their faiths, so, too, even the most radical secularists ought to accept the war memorial cross as the right way to honor the overwhelmingly Christian identification of those who have died defending our country.

The intolerant reaction to crosses on various hillsides and mountaintops has nothing to do with a fear that non-Christians (like me) might feel unconstitutionally compelled to worship the emblem of the nation's majority religion. In truth, we remain blessedly free to view that symbol with indifference, respect, curiosity, devotion, bemusement or even contempt - in the same way that our Christian neighbors can look on displays of Hanukkah menorahs that have begun turning up on public property every December.

A display of the cross (especially a cross that has been there for decades, such as the one in the desert) doesn't amount to "establishment of religion" or the imposition of theocracy, but it does function as a reminder of the fervent Christianity that has played such a potent, even predominant, role in shaping and sustaining this country. My Jewish kids aren't intimidated or threatened by such reminders, but they would be damaged by enforced ignorance of the Christian ideals and idealists behind crucial historical movements - from the pilgrims to the civil rights marchers, from the establishment of our most prestigious universities (nearly all of which began as Christian seminaries) to the battles to free slaves and resist international communism.

Reflecting a Christian past

Of course non-Christians - including atheists, agnostics and members of minority faiths - have also played heroic roles in every era of the American past. But with the current freewheeling diversity in our religious marketplace of ideas - where missionaries for Scientology jostle the enthusiastic advocates of the Kabbalah Center - we're in little danger of viewing our culture's present or future in monochromatic or intolerant terms.

We do face formidable efforts, however, to erase and distort the nation's Christian past. In this sense, it's almost appropriate that secular activists focus on the crosses used in various war memorials: the very designation "memorial" derives from the word "memory," and the effort to obliterate these monuments in various locations amounts to more than a program to redecorate the landscape. The campaign against religious symbols represents a war on memory itself - and an intolerant effort to eradicate all prominent reminders of the faith-based heritage of this civilization.

Nationally syndicated radio talk host Michael Medved is the author of Right Turns. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

June 15, 2007

Route 66 motel to be restored

Photo courtesy of Albert Morrissette
Standing in front of the world famous Roy’s motel and café sign are from left, Jeff Samudio, Jim Shearer, Michael Orme, Jim Conkle, Albert Okura and Stephen Razo.

Victorville Daily Press

AMBOY — Albert Okura, the businessman who bought and restored the original McDonald’s restaurant in San Bernardino, formed a partnership Thursday to restore Roy’s motel, café and gas station on Route 66.

The California Route 66 Preservation Foundation and the Bureau of Land Management made the announcement in the tiny community of Amboy, halfway between Barstow and Needles on Route 66.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently listed historic Route 66 motels as some of America’s 11 most endangered historic resources.

“Of the motels on Route 66, this is one of the most significant ones” said Glen Duncan, president of the foundation and a board member of the national trust.

Okura first took an interest in purchasing Amboy in 1998, but the price was too high. Then in 2003, when Amboy was for sale on eBay, his bid fell short of the $995,000 reserve price.

In 2005, a message from Bessie Burris, who owned Amboy, got to Okura notifying him of yet another pending sale.

“I had to buy it” said Okura. Explaining his motivation, he said, “the more I got involved in the sale, the more I realized it has to be protected.”

He offered $425,000 and Burris accepted, with the condition that Okura not destroy Amboy, but renovate it.

Okura, owner of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain, had already established himself as a preservationist. He saved the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino from the bulldozers and converted it into a McDonald’s museum and his company office.

After the announcement Thursday, Okura gave a tour of the facilities and explained his plan for the restoration.

Also on the tour were Stephen Razo, BLM director of external affairs; Jim Shearer, BLM archaeologist; Michael Orme, field representative for Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt; Jim Conkle, a national trust board member; and Jeff Samudio of DesignAid Cultural Research Management, who is performing a historic survey documentation of sites for the state of California.

“Roy’s motel, café and gas station are perhaps most beloved and considered particularly important relative to other Route 66 properties because of the remote desert location” said Duncan.“

Traveling east or west, it was and still is a long way to go for gasoline, a bed or something to eat. Roy’s was a godsend for travelers,” he said.

Route 66 was recently listed as one of the 100 most endangered sites by the World Monument Watch in New York City.

June 14, 2007

BLM offers divergent view of controversial mountain road

Descriptions and comments from environmental groups ‘misleading,’ say agency and advocacy group

Inyo Register
By Jon Klusmire

A dry creekbed that occasionally carries water from higher up on Furnace Creek and Furnace Creek Road at one of six locations where the road and creek cross on BLM land. Photo courtesy BLM

Repairing and opening a short section of Furnace Creek Road won’t be expensive, will maintain a historic vehicular access route in the White Mountains and will fulfill the multiple use mandate on Bureau of Land Management lands, according to the BLM.

The Bishop-based Advocates for Access to Public Lands applauded the BLM’s decision. The group also said its volunteers were more than ready to help complete any necessary work to get the road open.

And in the ongoing war of words about roads and access, the AAPL members said overheated rhetoric and factual errors about Furnace Creek and the decision to re-open the road distorted what was really happening on the ground and distorted what was a simple, common-sense decision by the BLM.

The recent decision to open about 3.75 miles of the road drew a vociferous and vehement response from environmental groups which had sued to close the road and force an environmental study of the impacts created by the use of the road.

If the decision stands, Furnace Creek Road would be re-opened from where it is currently gated to the border between BLM and Forest Service land. The road originates in Nevada and then crosses into California and Mono County.

Some of the comments were incorrect, said Dave Sjaastad, the BLM Ridgecrest Office team leader for Furnace Creek.

First off, Furnace Creek is not a “perennial” creek, he said, it is an “ephemeral” stream. That means water does not run down the full length of the streambed all year-round.

The Friends of the Inyo, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics all made statements in press releases or in interviews that said Furnace Creek was “a rare perennial desert stream,” to quote the Center for Biological Diversity.

While Furnace Creek does have water in it year-round at its higher reaches, such as where it moves through Forest Service Land, Sjaastad said only seasonal flows reach the BLM-managed portion of land. And, he noted, those flows only come during wet winter years.

Even after the record winter of 2005-06, five of the six stream and road intersections on BLM land were completely dry, Sjaastad said. Plus, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board classifies Furnace Creek as “an ephemeral stream,” he noted, meaning it does not run year-round for its full length.

“It’s a seasonal stream, at best,” said Dick Noles of AAPL, and for the environmental groups to say otherwise is “misleading.”

Another bit of mis-information corrected by Noles and AAPL member Dave Mattovich was that Furnace Creek is not in a Wilderness Study Area. Instead, the section of creek in the Forest Service land is “cherry stemmed,” meaning the WSA boundary goes around the creek and road, but does not include it.

The 2002 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity temporarily closed the road until the BLM could conduct an Environmental Assessment. That assessment showed “really there was no significant impact to reopen the road,” said Sjaastad. “It was a pretty straightforward decision.”

The road has been in use for about 100 years, said Mattovich, and that “historic use” played into the BLM’s decision, noted Sjaastad. Not only had the road been used for a long time, keeping the road open provided access to BLM and Forest Service lands, and “promotes the multiple use mission of the BLM,” he added.

As for the places where the road crosses the streambed, Sjaastad noted that virtually all of the six stream crossings rarely have water in the road and stream at the same time.

The work to “harden” those crossings will involve putting rocks in the streambed/road, noted Greg Weirick, of AAPL, and some other well-known techniques to protect the stream and keep the road from washing out.

There are “thousands” of instances where roads cross dry streambeds in the region governed by the BLM Ridgecrest Office, noted Sjaastad, so the Furnace Creek situation is not unusual or unique.

The BLM will consider the work on the crossings as “routine maintenance,” he noted. “There will be no major construction.”

And the BLM is counting on the volunteers from AAPL to help do the work. “It won’t cost BLM a thing,” promised Noles, who said the group was ready and able to work with BLM on the job.

Sjaastad said the decision to open up the drier portions of the road on BLM land makes sense for several reasons. First, the length of road provides access through the somewhat barren, arid section of the canyon to the higher, greener areas of Furnace Creek.

“It just seems like a natural border” between the BLM lands and the Forest Service lands, he said.

Noles concurred that “the Forest Service part is wet.” The debate over that part of the road is completely different, he noted, with one plan being to construct a trail alongside the stream, but not allow a road.

The Forest Service has not presented a timelime for its final decision about the future of the road or possibly a trail on its portion of Furnace Creek. The BLM’s decision should not be construed as an endorsement of opening the road on Forest Service land, Sjaastad noted.

Noles stressed the BLM decision had nothing to do with the remaining stretch of road on the Forest Service land, even though the environmental groups made it sound like the whole road was now being prepared to be opened.

There is a reason, according to Noles, the environmental groups are trying to make the BLM decision spill over onto the Forest Service section of Furnace Creek: “They have an agenda to close the road so they can say this should be a Wilderness Area.”

June 11, 2007

Iron Hog saloon, restaurant hits the market

Victor Valley Daily Press

Lynda Townsend, left, delivers some beer to patrons at the Iron Hog saloon in Oro Grande on Monday. The historic saloon is back on the market with the hopes of finding an investor that will maintain the property.

ORO GRANDE — Biker bar, local landmark and setting for several movies, the Iron Hog saloon is on the market once again, hoping to find an investor to maintain the historic property.

Once a venue for a concert by legendary performer Johnny Cash, the property features a 2,775-square-foot saloon and restaurant on 3.6 acres north of Oro Grande, including a stage and large outdoor patio.

“Roy Rogers' initials are carved in the bar,” said Michael George Michaels, the current owner who was obliged to put the Iron Hog up for sale because of illness

Agents marketing the property see the sale of the saloon as an opportunity to own an artifact of local history that is close to the growing community of the Victor Valley.

“It’s an historic place that’s been around for 100 years,” said James Langley, senior land specialist with the Bradco Companies, which is brokering the sale of the property.

Still standing at the site is an old building once used to separate gold and silver, according to apocryphal legend.

Whatever the actual history, the Iron Hog has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years and has been featured in a number of motion pictures, including the Hollywood blockbuster “Erin Brockovich.”

Asking price for the Iron Hog is $585,000.

June 9, 2007

'middle of no place'

Life of the San Bernardino County sheriff's resident deputy in Baker:

  • One deputy per shift

  • 5,000 square miles of the county's most isolated desert to cover

  • Backup on major incidents can often be an hour or more away

The Lone Rangers

Greg Vojtko / The Press-Enterprise
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department resident Deputy Corey LaFever surveys the area he covers along both sides of Interstate 15 between Baker and Nevada.

Resident lawmen cover a vast, desolate 5,000 square miles of San Bernardino County

The Press-Enterprise [Riverside, CA]

BAKER - Shrugs from behind the counter. No blood on the payphone, either.

There wasn't much to the investigation of a 911 hang-up call from the Baker Country Store, but then, when you're the only deputy in 5,000 square miles of remote desert, it's hard to be hot on anyone's trail.

"It was probably a half-hour ago?" asked San Bernardino County sheriff's Deputy Corey LaFever, trying to elicit a memory from the store's clerks.

Nothing. Outside, two payphones sat, seemingly unharmed.

"Unfortunately," he told the clerks, "I get here as soon as I can."

That could be the watchword for LaFever, who, like the colleague he alternates with, is the sole deputy responsible for the vast, isolated depths of San Bernardino County's High Desert.

The territory is about the size of Connecticut, stretching north of Barstow all the way to Nevada; from Fort Irwin east past the Mojave National Preserve.

It's not uncommon for LaFever to put 300 miles a day on his cruiser, visiting rural outposts like Nipton and Kelso before backtracking to his small substation at Baker's Community Services District building.

LaFever, a wiry 26-year-old with spiked hair and three cell phones on his belt -- one for his role as the area's deputy coroner -- accentuates the positive. There's less time chasing calls and more time to try drug interdictions on Interstate 15, or interacting with the fewer than 1,000 people living in the communities.

But then there's the other side. LaFever once went a week without an incident to respond to. The 911 hang-up that took him 30 minutes to investigate -- he was on a dirt road to Sandy Valley when it came in -- was the only call during a 10-hour shift.

"Obviously, there's a lot of time to think," he said on the drive from Kelso to Baker, 36 miles past an endless parade of Joshua trees.

When the peace is shattered, other issues can arise. Backup can be an hour away, "and that's if you're lucky," said sheriff's Lt. Don Riser, who supervises the resident deputies from the sheriff's station in Barstow, 60 miles south.

Not halfway through his two-year assignment, LaFever is optimistic. But Riser acknowledged it takes a special person to wake up in the middle of the night and drive hours for anything from fistfights to plane crashes, to merely checking a car with its headlights on.

"It's crazy what we do to these guys up there," Riser said. "They are in the middle of no place by themselves. And I mean no place."

That doesn't take into account what being in Baker does for your personal life.

"The biggest thing is the wife," Riser said. "How do you talk your lovely bride into working in the middle of hell?"

A Veteran Returns

For Kathy Andrews, it didn't take arm-twisting. Her husband, Bill, is the other resident deputy who rotates with LaFever. The couple lives in a modular home provided by the Sheriff's Department at no cost.

Sure, the closest supermarket is 60 miles away. And yes, the closest large mall is 90 miles. But aside from knowing a good night's sleep is always a call away from being ruined -- sometimes twice in the same night -- she said life in the farthest reaches of the county isn't bad.

You simply have to do your shopping, errands and social outings, like a trip to the movies, in one swoop.

"I like being where it's peaceful and quiet," Kathy Andrews said. "But everything has to be very well planned."

Unlike LaFever and his family, which includes a wife and two toddlers, the Andrewses have done this before. Bill Andrews had his first stint as Baker's resident deputy in the late 1980s, and if anyone thinks it's a lonely existence now, he said they should have seen then.

Cell phones were nonexistent. There were fewer California Highway Patrol officers in the vicinity to offer backup. Simply letting dispatchers know your location could require a 20-mile drive on dirt roads to make radio contact.

"It got pretty hairy," said the 54-year-old Andrews, an 18-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department who requested a return to Baker last year to make extra money, through on-call pay, for retirement. "But you just suck it up."

While Andrews knows how slow the beat can be, he also has a wealth of chaos-packed tales. One involved a robbery/homicide at a Baker gas station where the clerk gave his "dying breath" on the 911 phone call.

First Andrews had to guess if the assailants would flee north or south on I-15. He chose north, hoping the suspects didn't know side roads.

Andrews spotted their U-Haul van near Cima. With no backup, he kept his distance with his flashers off until a passing car shined its lights right on him, revealing his cruiser and spooking the suspects.

They threw a shotgun and money out the window before finally exiting near Whiskey Pete's Casino just over the Nevada state line. Then they jumped a fence and slipped into the casino, thinking they were unseen. But Andrews knew the security guard, and the two watched surveillance that followed the suspects' trail into the casino and down to a table where they sat to gamble.

Las Vegas Metropolitan police made the arrest.

"They had killed the clerk, in cold blood, because they didn't want any witnesses," Andrews recalled. "With no backup, I couldn't risk a traffic stop. It could have been an all-time shoot-out."

Old West Mentality

Incidents like that -- or a recent one where LaFever responded alone to a fatal plane crash and worked 18 hours as both sheriff's deputy and coroner -- prompts Riser to call the Baker resident deputies "Lone Rangers."

"If they were down in Rancho (Cucamonga) and needed backup, they'd have three guys in three minutes, 10 guys in six minutes and 15 guys in 12 minutes," Riser said. "But it can literally be an hour and a half. We just have to hope they survive the encounter."

Baker's deputies also have to be good communicators, Riser said.

LaFever quickly realized that. Calmly reasoning with a suspect is preferable to a confrontation when your backup help is nowhere in sight.

"You tend to learn verbal judo," he said as he traversed dusty, rocky roads on the way to Nipton.

"You've got to be a little more talkative, because if you've got to go hands-on with someone, you probably couldn't do it for 30 minutes."

To residents and shop owners in the tiny towns scattered throughout his turf, LaFever is the affable deputy who regularly stops to chat, and on this day, buy a Snickers candy bar he put next to his cruiser's air-conditioning vent to stop its melt.

At the Nipton Trading Post, LaFever greeted German tourists on their way to Lake Mead and made sure shop employee Linda Lou didn't have any crises.

"Nah, we're fine," Lou said. "You don't see the lights on at night in Nipton. We're all sleeping."

LaFever chuckled, then made his way to the town center: a dirt road directly behind the Trading Post lined with a handful of tiny wooden homes. He found a man able to give him air for his low tire, and all it cost was a minute's small talk about a well that the town is installing to bottle water for sale.

"I'm still waiting to try that Nipton water," LaFever said as he got back in his car and pulled away.

Two hours later, he was back in Baker. The final tally of stops was Nipton, Kelso, Cima, and Sandy Valley -- where he passed a ranch with a mannequin being hanged out front, the word "Litterer" on the post above its head.

"A lot of these towns have the mentality of the Old West: 'I'll handle my own business,' " LaFever said, noting that some residents don't report thefts because they figure his drive would be too far.

But he still travels the long roads, hundreds of miles at a time. He still pumps his own gas at the same stations he watches over, waves to children as he jogs along Baker Boulevard in his free time, and scouts out dunes for his personal hobby of taking his Jeep off-roading.

"There's a lot of experience I can get there that I can't get elsewhere," LaFever said. "But at the end of my two years, will I be ready to go? Sure, because if I'm not growing or learning, I'm standing still."

With that, LaFever points out the window of his patrol car. It's at a massive Sandy Valley hay farm known for its rancher who recently vanished without a trace.

He is surrounded by acres and acres of nothing on every end.

June 5, 2007

Supervisors tag limits on sale of county land

By George Watson, Staff Writer
Ontario Daily Bulletin (San Bernardino Sun)

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to limit land conservation groups' abilities to buy county land.

The board voted 3 to 2 in favor of the plan, which will have little impact on most sales but could save the county money while keeping land accessible to the public, officials said.

Only about 2 percent of purchases take place under an existing tax law called a chapter 8 sale, said Brad Mitzelfelt, the First District supervisor who sponsored the plan.

Nonprofit groups have been using the tax law to buy tax-defaulted property at public auctions for a reduced price, he said.

Too often, he added, those groups then give it to the federal government, which doesn't pay property taxes. Since 2000, the county has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches to conservation groups' acquisitions, Mitzelfelt said.

The policy would be beneficial, Mitzelfelt argued, because it will either keep property on the county tax roll or ensure it is sold for fair market value.

Supervisors Dennis Hansberger and Gary Ovitt said they agreed with the principles proposed by their colleague. But they disagreed with one portion of it, which entailed giving authority to allow the chapter 8 sale to the supervisor whose district is home to the land being sold.

"I believe in a system of checks and balances. We don't even have the authority to appoint our own staff," Hansberger said, pointing out that each supervisors' staff members must be approved by the board as a whole.

Peter Jorris, representing the San Bernardino Mountains Land Trust, opposed the policy.

"The proposal does not seem to rest on solid evidence," Jorris told the supervisors, adding that Mitzelfelt provided no studies or examples of misuse.

He also questioned giving authority to one individual supervisor.

Chris Ervin of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association said his organization supported the policy.

While it might seem that his group would oppose it, he explained that the federal government acts as a poor steward for the land it has acquired in the Mojave National Preserve.

His group has tried to buy more land but cannot compete with the deep pockets of national conservation organizations, and the preserve is becoming less accessible.

Boxer yields to opposition

Land near Sugarloaf will not be claimed as wilderness area

San Bernardino Sun

Joe Nelson, Staff Writer

BIG BEAR LAKE - Facing opposition from city and fire officials, Sen. Barbara Boxer, has decided against designating 6,336 acres of land near Sugarloaf a wilderness area.

As part of their California Wild Heritage Act of 2007, Boxer and Rep. Hilda Solis, both state Democrats, planned to designate as wilderness area the patch of land in Big Bear Lake and 17,920 acres in the San Gorgonio Wilderness. The designations would pose certain restrictions to the areas and prevent roads and commercial enterprises from being built.

But city and fire officials opposed the Sugarloaf area wilderness designation, concerned it would thwart firefighters' ability to access the area should a wildfire erupt.

"We all love the environment we live in. Protecting the forest is critical, but doing so at the possible expense of lives and property because of lack of access or authority could be dangerous," Bill Jahn, mayor of Big Bear Lake, said in a written statement Monday. "We are grateful to Senator Boxer and her staff for the time they took to listen and address our community's concerns."

In April, the Big Bear Lake City Council approved a resolution opposing the designation and subsequently notified Boxer's office.

Tom Bohigian, state director for Boxer, subsequently met with city officials to hear their concerns, then reported back to Boxer.

"The senator took their concerns about fire very seriously. She decided this was the right thing to do," Bohigian said.

Last week, Bohigian informed city officials that the bill would be reintroduced in 2009, sans the Sugarloaf designation.

The original bill called for the designation of 2.4 million acres of wilderness and segments of wild and scenic rivers throughout the state. It would have allowed the secretary of agriculture to authorize federal, state and local authorities to take appropriate measures to fight wildland fires should they break out in designated wilderness areas.

Despite that provision, Big Bear Lake fire Chief John Morley said he was concerned that if firefighters were delayed from accessing the area because they had to wait for federal approval, it would jeopardize public safety.

June 3, 2007

Organizations Support Mitzelfelt Land Sale Policy

From Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt’s
JoinBrad.com blog

This week I received a big boost in my effort to limit what have been virtually free acquisitions of land by conservation groups and the federal government in order to remove such property from public access and private ownership. Three well-established and highly respected property rights groups have came out in support of my proposed policy, which will be considered by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

The first organization to support my proposal was the Property Owners Association of Riverside County (POARC), the leading land rights organization in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The Lucerne Valley Economic Development Association (LVEDA) and the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA) also have voiced their support.

The POARC was formed to protect the rights of landowners. The association is a nonprofit, public policy research, advocacy, and educational organization founded in 1983. The organization serves owners of large and small properties, including farmers, homebuilders and others whose interests are affected by land use regulation.

"We strongly support the proposed county policy," said Bruce Colbert, Executive Director of POARC. "Property often goes into tax-default due to government restrictions placed on property to serve conservation group constituencies. These restrictions deny the landowners all economic use of their property. It is becoming an all too common racket that needs to be stopped by policies such as you are proposing."

The Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association is an 800-member non-profit organization devoted to the preservation of the natural and cultural resources of the Mojave Desert. The MDHCA currently manages 900 acres in and around the Mojave National Preserve, including historic open space.

MDHCA President Chris Ervin said his group’s support is based on both a concern for the disposition of land acquired by the federal government as well as concern about a shrinking tax roll. "We are alarmed by the neglect and destruction of resources as they come under the control
of the National Park Service," said Ervin. "Erosion of our tax roll revenue is a real threat as the loss of income would likely affect county services or require their elimination."

Chuck Bell, secretary of LVEDA, expressed his group’s concerns about Chapter 8 tax sales. "We support these efforts by Supervisor Mitzelfelt because this has been a long-standing issue of concern for our group," said Bell. "These outright gifts of land to the federal government need to be stopped."

Existing tax laws allow qualifying non-profit organizations to purchase residential or vacant property that has been tax defaulted for five years or more prior to the property being sold by the County at auction. The organization must then agree to use residential property for low-income residential purposes, or to dedicate the vacant land to a public use. These types of sales of tax-defaulted properties to non-profits are set forth in Chapter 8 of Part 6 of Division 1 of the California Revenue and Taxation Code and are commonly referred to as "Chapter 8 Sales". This process is often used to acquire land at below market prices because only the taxes due and an administrative fee are typically charged.

Land conservancies have been acquiring large amounts of private land in San Bernardino County, only to transfer the land to the federal government, thereby removing the property from county tax rolls and in some cases closing off access to public lands. Our county has lost 735,807 acres of tax base and ranches since 2000 to conservancy acquisitions for parks, wilderness inholdings and habitat mitigation.

The intent of my proposal is to return such tax defaulted properties to viable residential and other economic uses, and to maintain the properties on the tax rolls of the County whenever possible to help pay for public services. The policy would give supervisors more say about which groups can acquire land using the Chapter 8 provisions, where it can be acquired and to what use it would be dedicated.

The policy would allow the Treasurer-Tax Collector to approve Chapter 8 sales in many cases where conservation is the only possible beneficial use, and under other limited circumstances. But the policy would also close a loophole that the federal government has used by having non-profits acquire land on its behalf. The Federal Government is not allowed to acquire land under Chapter 8.
Removing private property from the county tax rolls results in a loss in revenue to the county - revenue that could be used to build roads, hire Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters, or to provide other public improvements.

We have lost about 150,000 acres of private land in the Mojave National Preserve to such conservation acquisitions. There are only about 100,000 acres of private property left there.
Private property ownership not only helps the County provide services by bringing in property tax revenues. It also has a role in protecting the natural environment.

Human activities such as ranching have been beneficial to the environment in the past by providing "eyes and ears" on the ground in case of fires, vandalism and other concerns. Humans have also developed and maintained water sources that have benefited species recovery and provided additional sources of water for firefighting.

Livestock grazing has helped keep fire fuels (vegetation) under some degree of control in the past. However, with the continued acquisition of ranches and grazing rights and with water sources being dismantled, we are losing this benefit. We have seen this phenomenon contribute to disastrous wildfire conditions.

Even if denied a tax sale under Chapter 8 — which wouldn’t always be the case depending on circumstances and the supervisor whose district the property is located within — non-profits would be able to still buy the land at auction at a regularly scheduled county tax sale. In that case they would have to pay the going price and potentially have to compete with private bidders. Implementation of my proposed policy would give more private citizens an opportunity to buy such lands. Currently under Chapter 8 sales, the public doesn’t get the right to bid on such properties.

If we are going to lose properties in perpetuity from our tax rolls and possibly lose public or private access, I want to at least make sure the taxpayers receive the market value of the property.