Driving north along Silverado Canyon Road, past the Silverado Cafe, the fire station and post office, you climb uphill to a stand of carob trees. On the left side of the road is Silverado Creek and, beyond the creek, Connie Nelson's home, a green and white clapboard cottage and horse corral wedged up against a steep hillside. Between the road and the creek—but still on Nelson's property—is an earthen berm with six blackberry bushes Nelson planted there a year ago to keep the road from washing away.
But to county officials, the bushes and the soil beneath them represent an illegal dumping operation, an "unlawful connection to a storm water drainage system," an illegal discharge, an unlawful "alteration of a watershed," a failure to store solid waste in a container, a contamination of the water with "a material deleterious to fish, plant life or bird life," and, on top of all that, a "public nuisance." Because she's refused to dig up the bushes and remove the soil for the past year, the Orange County district attorney's office has now charged Nelson with a dozen misdemeanor counts. Her trial is scheduled to begin today. If convicted, she faces fines of tens of thousands of dollars and jail time.
County officials say the dirt around the bushes is actually manure that Nelson carted in from her corral. Nelson begs to differ: it was manure, but not now: she composted it for six months, so it's no longer dangerous. She's actually doing the county a favor, she adds: Since she bought her house 13 years ago, the creek has washed away the erosion-control boulders that county officials have placed there no less than three times. Two years ago, five teenagers drove off the road in front of her house, flipped their car, and ended up in the creek. The creek was dry, and the kids survived, but Nelson says the berm, which rises a few feet above street level, might have prevented the accident altogether.
"This is my property," Nelson says. "I'm not hurting anybody, but the county keeps coming after me. At this juncture, I feel like I'm being assaulted for exercising my First Amendment rights."
Nelson says her problems with county officials began shortly after Dec. 14, 2004, when she appeared at an Orange County Planning Commission meeting and denounced a proposal to limit canyon residents to no more than eight horses per acre. An avowed horse lover who moved to Silverado Canyon to escape urban life and the intrusions of what she calls "big government," Nelson saw the proposed ordinance, which became law a few months later, as an attack on her way of life.
"At the meeting, I got up and called this ordinance a lifetime-employment contract for county code enforcement," Nelson says. "Right then, this man in a suit asked me where I lived, and I told him, 'Silverado Canyon.'"
Less than a month after the meeting, she says, a county code enforcement officer and two sheriff's deputies pulled up in front of her home. They told Nelson her horse corral was too close to Silverado Creek, and that the wall beneath the corral needed upgrades to protect water quality. Nelson agreed to the fixes, but then something odd happened, she says: Although Nelson hadn't brought it up, the code enforcement officer told her that his visit had nothing to do with Nelson's outburst at the planning commission meeting.
In the next few months, Nelson attended more hearings. She berated county officials for threatening to take over the Santiago County Water District, a move she saw as an attempt to provide tax revenue for new housing projects on nearby hills. She objected to a plan by the county's Board of Supervisors to build a tunnel through the Santa Ana Mountains. "I told the supervisors that I wouldn't hesitate to set up monitoring equipment if they started drilling that stupid tunnel," she recalls.
It was a few months after that, Memorial Day weekend 2005, that Nelson dumped a foot of dirt she had composted from horse manure, hay and mud along the rocks between Silverado Canyon Road and the creek. She planted half a dozen blackberry bushes in the soil to keep the berm from eroding. Unlike commercial composters, Nelson had let the manure cook for half a year to make sure she killed all the harmful bacteria. But on June 13, 2005, county code enforcement and Fish & Game officials paid Nelson another visit and ordered her to get rid of the dirt.
Nelson refused. "They asked me why I wouldn't take it down," she recalls. "I said it's for erosion control, and that these kids went over the side of the road. I felt like they'd keep coming after me for one thing or another and I had to take a stand right there."
County documents show that officials took no soil or water samples, relying instead on the super-sophisticated nostril check: they sniffed at the air and determined that it smelled like crap to them. They declared the berm "manure," and on July 7, issued Nelson an administrative compliance order requiring her "to immediately remove the manure berm and properly manage the manure generated on your property to prevent impact to receiving waters."
Again, Nelson refused to cooperate. She appealed to the Board of Supervisors, lost, and continued to ignore the order. She hired Corona-based Microbac Laboratories, Inc. to test the soil. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, compost soil is considered feces-free if it contains less than 1000 MPNs, the "most probable number" of organisms in a standard sample. Microbac's tests revealed that Nelson's compost contained fewer than 4 MPNs of fecal matter, making it 250 times less fecal than the state's safety standard. "Based on results, sample is negative for salmonella, E-coli, and fecal coliform," the analysis concluded.
On Dec. 23, 2005, two months after she lost her administrative appeal, Nelson still hadn't obeyed the county's order. That's when the district attorney's office hit Nelson with three misdemeanor counts of illegal dumping. Over the course of the last few months, the district attorney added a total of nine additional counts, all of them related to her failure to remove the berm.
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Nelson plans to use her lab results to show that the berm isn't manure, but compost that's relatively crap-free.
Between legal fees and lab tests, she's run up a $50,000 tab fighting the county. She's had to sell her cabin in Wrightwood to fund her campaign, rather than surrender.
Most people might have just moved the dirt. But not Nelson. "This is an abuse of power," she says. "We have four drug houses up here in the canyon, and the county doesn't do anything about it. But they're willing to spend thousands of dollars going after me for a bunch of dirt and bushes."