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.
On April 11, Brown received a visit from fish and game environmental specialist Christine Fritz and two colleagues. She sent a report, dated May 30, 2001, to Brown. In it, she states, "Although both Warden Pirtle and a biologist from the Forest Service led you to believe that your activities adjacent to the creek were not harmful to sensitive biological resources, [my colleagues] and I disagree."
Fritz went on to say Brown's wildlife pond was a threat to "sensitive herpetofauna inhabiting the creek, such as the California newt." She also "recommend[ed] that the pond be removed and the original wetland habitat be restored. The wetland restoration needs to be designed, engineered, and monitored by professional restoration/biological experts."
Still smarting from that news from the state, Brown received a citation from the County Department of Planning and Land Use on June 4, 2001. The violation listed on the citation was grading without proper permits.
"I was not doing illegal things," Brown insists. "What happened as far as the grading was concerned, I sent my wife down to the county and they said, 'If you have an agricultural permit, you don't have to get a grading permit.' We got that agricultural permit. I put one new road in, and I did clear some areas, and I put my pond in. That's what I did. [Dorman] started screaming and I stopped it all, and I've been in the process with the county ever since. But we were told that we didn't need a permit. And that was the case at the time. But they subsequently changed that."
Brown grows fruit trees and Christmas trees on his land, hence the agricultural permit. Before his July 2, 2001, court date, "The charge was dismissed by the district attorney's office in El Cajon."
The corrective action demanded by fish and game and the Water Quality Control Board was not dismissed, and Brown set about the restoration process which, he says, isn't cheap. Refilling the pond and replanting vegetation cost some money. But the big money, Brown explains, is spent on the people involved in the process. "I had to spend $9400 to have my biologist tell the government there are no endangered butterflies on my property. Ninety-four hundred dollars! These environmentalists, they..." he pauses, as if searching for the right words, "their exuberance is unfettered on this stuff."
Brown has spent another $20,000 on an engineer to straighten out the grading mess, "and before him, I had hired an engineer for another bunch of money, and he didn't do what he said he was going to do, and I got in trouble [with the county] for that. And I had to hire an archaeologist because she alleges that I've dug up Indian burial sites."
Another big cost for Brown has been lawyers to represent him in two lawsuits he has filed against Dorman. The suits stem from an incident that took place in March of 2001. Dorman's version: "They were doing what sounded like grading. And they had done it so much that I finally decided to go over to see if the workers had been told that they couldn't do this...and that they knew they were trespassing on our mineral rights. I got to the fence line, I yelled, and I knew that they had seen me, but they didn't react. So, like a dumb bunny, I crawled through the fence and called to them. And the guy who was doing the grading got out of his bulldozer and ran at me and came within two feet, just about to get to my neck. And out of fear, I pulled out a gun that I had in my waistband. We need to have a gun out there because there are mountain lions. As a matter of fact, our dog was just attacked about three months ago, and she still has big open wounds.... So when I crawled through the fence and he attacked me, I pulled out my gun. But I didn't point it at him; I held it across my chest and I told him, 'Stop! Don't do this!' And I very quickly backpedaled and then ran."
Brown's version: "She had to duck through some barbed wire and ignore a No Trespassing sign -- all after me telling her half a dozen times to stay off my property. Then she marched 150 yards onto my property and approached three men who were using the bulldozer to move big concrete pipes. She approached these three men knowing that Bill Overman [the bulldozer driver] had a heart condition. She knew that because he lives just down the road, and she admitted it on the record. Now, if you believe what Joaquin Partida [my caretaker] and Bill Overman say, Bill got down off the bulldozer and walked up to within six to eight feet of her and said, 'Get out of here! You're trespassing, and you know you're trespassing.' She says, 'You have no business running that bulldozer.' He said, 'We're not doing anything illegal. Get out of here!' She says, 'I'm not leaving,' and she started taking pictures. He says, 'Get the fuck out of here!' Whereupon she turned and she started to walk away, then she pulled a .38 out of her pocket and pointed it at him."
As to Dorman's contention that Overman was reaching for her throat, Brown says, "Baloney! That's a brand-new story. The last version I heard was that he was chasing her with a bulldozer."
"When I learned about it," Brown says, "I called the sheriff immediately, and they went out there and took the gun away from her."
In August 2002, Dorman was convicted of trespassing and carrying a concealed weapon and given three years' probation and a $3000 fine. As part of the probation, she can't come within 100 feet of Brown or his property. Because Boulder Creek runs through Brown's property, Dorman can't drive to her property from the direction of Descanso but instead must come in from Julian, which adds an hour to the trip from her mother's La Jolla Shores home, where she lives.
While she was at the criminal court, Brown served Dorman with notice of a civil lawsuit he had filed against her, "for all kinds of things," he says, "such as intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation. She had been defaming me by saying that I ride from my ranch to my office in downtown in a sheriff's helicopter, which has never happened."
Why the suit? "Because this woman wouldn't stop. She was like a Rottweiler on me."
The civil suit was settled, in February of this year, for $75,000 or, if Dorman couldn't come up with the cash, she was to cede her interest in the Double B to Brown. But she had neither the money -- she's on Social Security because of chronic poor health -- nor the land. "She had deeded her interest in her property," Brown says, "to her mother's trust, of which she is the beneficiary."
Brown has sued Dorman again, alleging "fraudulent conveyance of her asset," he says. "Between being served the papers [last August] and when we had our settlement conference out in El Cajon [in February], she took her interest in the Double B and transferred it to her mother's trust. That was a fraudulent conveyance if it was done to avoid having it subject to settlement."
Dorman counters, "I had borrowed money from my mother in order to pay off lawyers. I couldn't pay her back, so I went ahead and gave her the property."
"I told her the last time I saw her," Brown says, "and our lawyers were there, 'Look, this has gone on too far, the stress level is way too high for you and for me. Why don't you and I reach an agreement? If you want some more money for [your interest in the land], fine.' Because I want her out of there. Or I want $75,000."