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Fear & Loathing in Rancho Navarro

On September 17, I filed in small claims against L.N. at Mendocino Superior Courthouse in Fort Bragg. My presentation went as follows:

I am one of seven directors of the Home Owners Association in the subdivision of 135 ten-acre lots called Rancho Navarro. On May 20 of this year the Defendant sent an official document package to all Association members with a letter that stated: 

“We had to censure a director for ethics violations. Sincerely, L.N., President@ranchonavarro.com.” 

Minutes she posted on the Internet name me the ethics violator. The Board of Directors administers a budget of $151,000 and a reserve fund of $153,000. I am one of four directors with signature authority for Association checks. This accusation implies serious misconduct that could result in the denial of employment, credit, or other benefits. 

Some Rancho Navarro members discouraged permitted cannabis cultivation by calling Code Enforcement for minor offenses like leaving lights on at night. One resident slashed the tires on a grower’s truck. The Board passed Home Business Rules prohibiting street parking, night lights, and trucking in water. These actions remind me of our government’s expulsion of my grandfather from the farm he spent his lifetime building 78 years ago. I made speeches at Board meetings, sent letters to the entire membership, and published articles in the Anderson Valley Advertiser advocating tolerance in return for concessions from the growers, one of whom is my neighbor.

At the May 16 Board meeting, Ms. N. created her own ethics definition and proposed that I be censured for forwarding an email from another Board member. This casually written message, which gives no indication of being confidential, mentions, along with concern over Covid-19, that the sender knew a member of the Association operated an AirBnB. I forwarded this email to the person residing at the lot in question with the message: “Jane, Is this you?” 

Home Owners Association deliberations are supposed to be public. On five occasions I contacted the interested parties while mediating disputes as chairman of a Neighborhood Concerns Committee and kept the Board informed of those actions. I received thank-you letters from a defendant and a complainant. Most of the censure debate centered on my criticism of the siege mentality poisoning the atmosphere of our neighborhood. One Board member remarked, “Some of the people you sent those letters to were very upset.” After the censure passed, Ms. N. said, “I trust you won’t be sending any more letters to the membership.”

A previous Rancho Navarro Board prevented two Directors from voting on cannabis issues or attending meetings with lawyers paid by the Association, because the pair were growers. Last year, the Board mailed a document critical of cannabis along with ballots for the Board of Directors, even though growers were running for office. At secret meetings it appropriated $16,000 for lawyers’ fees without recording this in the Minutes. None of these actions was deemed an Ethics Violation by the current Board, and the Defendant claimed the ballot mailing was proper because it did not endorse a candidate. This double standard of excusing flagrant abuses of power when wielded against growers and calling a well-intentioned action by one of their supporters an “Ethics Violation” is contrary to the principles of our democracy.

The judge did not allow my full presentation, evidently believing the question of whether the censure was prompted by my circulation of letters disagreeing with the Board’s cannabis policy was irrelevant. Admittedly it is difficult to prove. He ruled the Defendant does not owe the plaintiff any money. 

Although it earned me a venomous public letter, my correspondence to the membership helped pass a veto of the punitive Home Business Rules. The vote was 48 to 28. Shortly after the tally was announced, Code Enforcement in Ukiah received numerous complaints from local residents. Twelve Ranch properties were visited. 

One resident remembered, “I scheduled an inspection with Code Enforcement after being unable to convince the inspector to look at aerial/satellite photography to determine the lawfulness of my garden. The officer did not show up. I called and left a message for him to reschedule, which he did. The cultivation site was determined to be within legal limits. The Code Enforcement (CE) officer was polite and professional, but refused to engage with my line of inquiry as to how the complainant had determined that I was unlawfully cultivating cannabis. (My garden is not visible from other properties.) After some prodding he conceded it was likely that people used Google images to locate gardens. The inspection lasted about half an hour.”

“It was not a pleasant experience,” one resident recalled. CE officers are armed policemen. If the original complaint wasn’t valid, the inspector might find another problem. One permitted resident was visited about three supposed violations not confirmed by inspection, but the inspector “made it crystal clear” that living in the RV parked on the property for their daughter’s visit was not allowed. “Everything in Mendocino County requires a permit,” another resident observed.

In a speech before the Board, a long-time resident declared, “Some of us have children for whom we are trying to provide hope in very dark times and you are directly responsible for filling them with fear as armed men force their way onto our properties and threaten us with the very real prospect of losing our homes and our livelihoods. Who is going to fight the fire when it threatens your homes? Who is going to pull your vehicles out of the ditch when they’re stuck or remove the tree blocking your roads and driveways? It is us, the part of your community who is young, energetic, and who have invested a life in this area in hopes of turning it into the paradise we all thought we were living in. You are destroying our community!”

One sunny morning two months ago I received a call from a Ranch resident on Bald Hill, three-quarters of a mile away. He complained at length about a bright light emanating from my neighbor’s yard. He had called Code Enforcement, and they said there was nothing they could do. Could I look into it? I walked to my neighbor’s cannabis plot and discovered a transparent plastic sheet draped over hoops to create greenhouse warming on the plants beneath. From thirty feet away the sun’s reflection was bright but not dazzling. I saw no easy way to warm the plants without the sheet and later told the man that such reflective surfaces are common in the city, where many of us are from. My wife received a telephoned earful from the same man, who gave the names of three neighbors with the same grievance. “He was really upset.”

In long conversations, angry residents repeated the same arguments no matter what I said. “If we let the growers in, agri-business will overrun the Ranch and make our wells run dry.” (Rancho Navarro’s hilly wooded terrain is unsuited to agriculture, and competition from the Central Valley makes the future viability of local cannabis farms questionable.) “Evil men will endanger our homes and attack our daughters.” (Most permitted growers—the primary target of the exclusion campaign—are young middle class families.) “Our way of life will vanish if we don’t draw a line in the sand.” (The continuing migration from the cities is changing the Ranch far more than six small farmers struggling to comply with 26 state and county regulations.) 

Rancho Navarro’s help-your-neighbor friendliness is being overshadowed by fear and loathing my mother would recognize from the loss of her farm 78 years ago.

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