In February of 1999, superior court judge Frank Brown purchased 73 acres of land along Boulder Creek near Descanso at a tax auction. The property had been owned by a man named Otto Rollins, who hadn't paid property taxes on it in eight years. Rollins purchased the oak-studded plot in 1991 from the ownership group of the Double B Ranch, which consisted of his parcel and another of the same size immediately downstream. The Double B owners, a loose group of outdoorsmen and recreational miners, retained ownership of the downstream parcel after the sale. They also retained the "mineral rights" to the plot they sold to Rollins. One of the owners, Mary Ann Dorman, lived on the lower parcel.
In 1999, the county seized Rollins's land, on which he owed about $25,000 in property taxes. That was the opening bid to buy the land at the tax auction Judge Brown attended. "I had never seen the property," Brown recalls. "But I had looked it up on a Thomas Brothers map, and based on that I said I would bid up over $100,000 for it."
Brown won the bidding for the property at $67,000. "Then I drove out to the land for the first time," he says. "I looked at it and went, 'Oh my God!' It had a stream going through it, it had oak trees, manzanitas. It was beautiful."
Even after paying another $20,000 in federal tax liens attached to the title, Brown felt that his land, which he dubbed Ranchita Margarita, was a bargain. "Therefore I felt comfortable investing more money," he says. "So I bought a modular home, and I had that dragged down Boulder Creek Road and bolted together on a foundation. Then I had a couple of trailer houses brought in for caretakers because I knew I had to have people there 24/7."
Downstream, Mary Ann Dorman was unaware that the property had been sold. "We were never notified of the [tax] sale," she says, "or that the taxes were due or anything like that. Later, the county told us that was because we didn't have an interest in the property. We also found out later that one of the neighbors, who happened to live about a block away from the judge and is a friend of his, took down the notice that had been put up at the post office and at the gate at Otto's ranch. He told us he did it to save Otto embarrassment."
"What clued us in [to the sale]," Dorman continues, "was a whole bunch of partying one night. They were playing Mexican music and shooting. You could hear it reverberating off the canyon walls, and you hear ricochets, which was really scary. They stopped at 4:00 a.m."
The second time Dorman heard late-night partying and early-morning shooting, in September of 1999, "We went ahead and called the police because it was so noisy." It would be the first of many government agencies that Dorman would call regarding Brown's property, and the beginning of a nasty dispute between rural neighbors.
Months after the wild parties, Dorman could hear the sound of heavy machinery coming from Ranchita Margarita. Brown was bulldozing a road on his property. "I need to have a road to service my well, which is down at the bottom of the hill," Brown explains. "And that road was put in to bypass the road that Otto Rollins made by driving a bulldozer straight down the hill."
In addition to the road, Brown cleared a horse ring near the house. And he dug a "wildlife pond" in a muddy area -- or marshland, depending on who describes it -- fed by a small spring in the hillside above. He also added more stones to a couple of small dams in Boulder Creek, which had been started by Otto Rollins.
Alarmed by the amount of clearing, scraping, and excavating, Dorman contacted the County Department of Planning and Land Use to ascertain whether Brown had permits to grade. She found out that he had secured an agricultural permit that allowed some grading but not, she contended, the amount Brown had done. She also contacted the state Department of Fish and Game and Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Army Corps of Engineers regarding changes to the creek.
In early spring of 2001, Brown began receiving calls, correspondence, and visits from county, state, and federal government agencies. The County Department of Planning and Land Use was first on the scene. A notice of violation they sent to Brown, dated March 5, 2001, states that he was in violation of code due to "grading with cuts/fills in excess of 5´ height [and] greater than 200 cubic yards' material moved," and "Discharge of contaminants, as a result of grading, into creek or stream in violation of County Stormwater Ordinance."
Brown says, "The straight-down-the-hill road that Otto Rollins made is where all my erosion problems came from."
On March 7, 2001, staff from the Regional Water Quality Control Board visited Ranchita Margarita and, though they couldn't gain admittance to the property, they, according to a letter they sent to Brown, were "able to observe from Boulder Creek Road that: 1. large areas of land have been graded; 2. roads have been cut into the hillside that slopes to Boulder Creek; 3. Boulder Creek appears to have been modified; 4. approximately 10-15 acres have been cleared."
On March 30, 2001, fish and game warden Shawn Pirtle showed up at Brown's gate. "He said," Brown recalls, " 'I heard from your neighbor Mary Ann Dorman that you're ruining this place.' So I said, 'Come in, hop in my truck, let's take a drive around.' So I took him all around, showed him what I'd done. I showed him my duck pond, and he said, 'This is really nice. This is beautiful.' He was a happy camper. But he said, 'We'll have to send our biologist out here.' "
In early April of 2001, a Forest Service survey team visited Brown's ranch and directed him to realign his fences.