The Norbertine Code

Monks and canyon dwellers go mano a mano in Silverado Canyon

Over time, the family stopped visiting, the old buildings were abandoned, and local kids would make mischief in the historic structures. Perhaps the property can be preserved for an open-air museum, Peterson says. She could see bees and turkeys back on the plot of land, a place that could become a cultural center where kids would learn about old America and settler ranches. Anything but steeples in the sky, she reasons.

"I always felt peaceful looking at it," she says. "Here's a piece of old ranching America right here at the entrance of our little town. It was perfect. And then when they removed the buildings, it was kind of shocking. I had to look at the land differently."

Peterson is also looking to heaven. While the monks believe God has given them the land, Peterson, a Christian, is seeking divine intervention against what she and other canyon residents see as an intrusion. They may forgive the abbey's sins, but they won't forgive its trespasses.

Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Not in our back yard

"There are other Christians who call me now, and they feel really disturbed by this, and they're praying the land gets preserved," she says. "The [abbey's monks are] not looking out for the interests of the community. They're looking out for their own interests. To a lot of Christians in the community, it's considered a selfish move on their part, and I feel strongly in that direction."

But Dick says the monks, like most canyon people, are also looking for solitude. They welcome anyone to visit their monastery on El Toro Road to get a glimpse of what can be expected at their new home.

Whether the Norbertine priests will love their neighbors as they love themselves remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: They preach the gospel of property rights.

In a May 3 letter to Phil McWilliams, president of the Inter-Canyon League, Susan K. Hori, an attorney for the Norbertines, said the abbey was aware his group had used a portion of its property for parking on the area commonly referred to as "The Riviera" during special events at nearby Silverado Community Center. Hori said St. Michael's, as a gesture of goodwill and support for the group's goals, would like to "discuss arrangements to accommodate your group's occasional use of the site."

In a letter to naturalist Joel Robinson, Hori warned that the abbey was aware of a tour he leads along the Riviera. "We trust and hope you will confirm that 'along the Riviera' means that you and your event participants will be walking along Silverado Canyon Road, adjacent to the Riviera, and not venture onto the Riviera or the remainder of the property and that any examination of the creek be outside of the boundaries of the property," Hori wrote.

Hori went on to write that the Holtz Ranch property is not a refuge for local wildlife, as stated on a website promoting the event, "but rather a private landholding designated for development in the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan" and that the Riviera itself is private property, where trespassing is prohibited, and not an accessible piece of old California, as also was stated on the event website.

Robinson replied by email to Hori, saying the area is a historic public right of way, that it's dangerous to walk on the road, and that his description of the area is accurate. "Wildlife do occur throughout the property, and the proposed development is not within the guidelines of the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan," Robinson wrote. "It is a historic piece of old California and totally visible for anyone to see."

Not all canyon residents are rabidly anti-development. Among them is Tom Smisek, a canyon man since 1970 who fondly recalls when the area had little bars and restaurants, even a shooting range. Documents such as the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan, which many canyon folks cite to stop new construction, are actually not intended to kill all development in the canyons, but rather give officials guidelines for the balancing act of honoring property rights and keeping the rural character of the area intact, he says.

In recent years, Smisek says, "environmental wackos" have cherry-picked the Silverado-Modjeska Specific Plan whenever they wanted to kill proposed buildings, and they've stubbornly fought projects as minute as a new barn. They have a hypocritical attitude, he argues, in wanting the wild trails and hills for themselves and no one else, even opposing new parks because restrooms, trash cans and parking lots would supposedly scar the land.

According to Smisek, these wackos have complained about traffic from development, but they have no problem with the caravans of cars and bicycles that accompany their Earth-first fund-raising booze-fests. Canyon residents who hate development won't think twice about cutting fences and tearing down no-trespassing signs, slashing tires on tractors, or dumping sugar into gas tanks on construction equipment.

The monks bear witness. "We're very disappointed," Dick says. "There's been vandalism of signs we've put up. We're in it for the long [haul] . . . and willing as possible to be good neighbors."

If environmentalists want to set a good example, Smisek reasons, they should raze their houses, let their properties return to their natural states, and leave.

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