Photo by Jack GouldA county inspector driving along Trabuco Canyon Road a few weeks ago spotted a dump truck carrying a load of fill dirt. Because the county is cracking down on illegal grading in Trabuco Canyon and other parts of the county's backcountry, the loaded truck naturally piqued the inspector's interest. So he followed it. The truck led him onto Trabuco Creek Road, a rutted dirt track that runs to Holy Jim Canyon, and then onto an equally rutted turnoff that crosses Trabuco Creek and enters the Mitchell Ranch, a rustic 150 acres sprawling across the brown hills and through oak-choked arroyos.
What the inspector found there was not the simple case of illegal grading he thought he was pursuing. What he discovered, instead, was the other side of Orange County.
Once across Trabuco Creek, the dirt lane entering the Mitchell Ranch forks. If you take the left fork, you wind back and forth to the top of a hill upon which sits the main house, a luxurious affair of lush landscaping and wide verandas giving an excellent view of the surrounding canyon lands. But forget the main house for a moment. Follow the route taken by the county inspector and take the right fork instead. That road rises gently and curves into a narrow arroyo forested with sycamores and oaks. Here you will find as the inspector did a community that does not appear on any maps, population about 120. Most are families with children; the rest are single men. Most are Mexican, and most are undocumented. And they all live on the Mitchell Ranch illegally.
You know, of course, that Orange County is a place of great wealth:expensive cars, towers of glass and steel that gleam in the sun, big houses, well-tended houses surrounded by emerald lawns and banks of flowers cared for by gardeners. On the Mitchell Ranch, the homes of the residents consist of small trailers or shacks roughed together from scavenged lumber and camper shells and corrugated tin. Children play a game of tag along the dirt pathway. A man boils a kettle of water over an open fire. Chickens peck for feed. There is no electricity and no plumbing. Water for washing and drinking is carried by hoses strung together from a spigot at the big house. There was a time when the tenants had no bathroom facilities and relieved themselves, by common agreement, in the trees and brush a few yards from the campsite; today, they visit several battered portable outhouses scattered along the road. The residents own their dwellings but pay rent for the land. The rent varies. A single man living alone pays $135 per month. A married couple with a child or two pays $250 per month. An extended family of children and several adults pays as much as $800 per month. Rent is paid to the property owner in cash; speaking conservatively, this may amount to $100,000 per year.
The owner is Eve U. Mitchell. Now in her late 80s, Mitchell has owned the ranch for 45 years, living on it for most of that time. Many of the residents have lived here for years, and the community itself may be 23 years old. We know that because this isn't Mitchell's first run-in with the law. In 1988, county officials discovered similar conditions and ordered Mitchell and a neighbor, Sam Porter, to evict "transients" living on their ranches in unlicensed, substandard housing lacking electricity and running water. At the time, a resident told The Orange County Register he had been paying Mitchell $150 per month in rent for six years; other residents indicated people had been living on the property in similar circumstances for 12 years.
A few years after the county ordered her to shut down her Tijuana-like shantytown, Mitchell narrowly avoided public scrutiny again. In the winter of 1995, heavy rains washed out the road to her house. A Register reporter visited Mitchell and other canyon residents to describe how they were coping with the flood; the reporter explained that "local laborers" fashioned an "improvised footbridge" to provide temporary access. The "local laborers" were not otherwise identified.
Here is a question you can debate with yourself: Is the Mitchell Ranch simply Orange County's libertarian spirit at its best—willing tenants making a voluntary deal with a landlord so that they can raise their kids in the bucolic splendor of Orange County's majestic canyon wilds —or is it a symbol that America hasn't learned much about its poor, many of whom live in conditions remarkably like those in The Grapes of Wrath?
Whatever your answer, county officials decided that at a minimum, there were serious code violations. The county planning official who discovered the shantytown returned the following day with a district attorney's investigator. In short order, more inspectors showed up, documenting numerous sanitary hazards, fire dangers and substandard housing. There was some concern that human waste had contaminated a nearby creek. Officials posted notices informing residents they must move out by Oct. 1.
But this is a kinder, gentler Orange County: a county task force was formed to help the residents find other housing.
The district attorney's office began an investigation. No one is talking much about the details of that investigation. Nor is anyone offering an answer to the biggest question of all: How could such a thing come about in one of the richest counties in America?
That question is not being answered by the property owner; phone calls to Mitchell and her attorney went unreturned. A visit to the ranch house, sitting on its hill above the arroyo, proved fruitless as well. Eight months ago, Mitchell transferred one-sixth shares in the property to each of her three children, Steve U. Parker, Mark U. Parker and Linda Laval. Mitchell has reportedly moved to Long Beach; Steve Parker now lives on the ranch with his family. He was visibly nervous when he was approached by a reporter; he said his lawyers had told him to say nothing that might upset county officials and declined any other comment.
Nor are county officials anywhere close to answering the question. In the past year, county planning director Tom Mathews has been more aggressive in following up code violations in response to directives from the board of supervisors last year. But that effort, at least in Trabuco Canyon, has been primarily directed at illegal grading. Mathews said he wouldn't discuss any specifics of the situation, but did say, "There were just so many code violations—fire, building, land use, everything—and that's all been communicated to the landowner."
And what about the fact that the shantytown dates back to at least 1976? "I just don't know what happened," he said.
Assistant District Attorney Byron Nelson, who is in charge of the investigation, was also unwilling to speak. The property "has violations of many codes," he said. "There are below-standard conditions and very substantial problems about environmental issues, particularly polluting the creek."
He said he's focusing on the current situation and didn't want to get into what might "or might not" have happened 10 years ago. "They [the property owners] have a unique property—environmentally sensitive," said Nelson. "And they're not going to realize any value from it until they clean up the mess."
Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer, whose district includes Trabuco Canyon and who has vociferously urged the planning department to crack down on code violations, was more outspoken. "She [Mitchell] has no business doing that, collecting revenue for unsanitary conditions," he said. "It's nothing more than outrageous. She has been exploitive."
Spitzer could offer no specific explanation for the county's 11-year delay in following up on conditions at the ranch, but he said that under previous district attorneys, code enforcement just wasn't a priority. The county has taken steps to deal with the consequences of evictions from the Mitchell Ranch, calling together officials from various county departments and non-profit social-services agencies to provide residents with assistance in finding new places to live.
"We've tried to organize a collaborative effort to get help to these people," said Karen Roper, who works in the county CEO's office coordinating programs for the homeless. "We've been out there five times talking with the residents, and we've put together a brochure explaining where they can go for help. We're hoping to provide some funds for moving."
One of the agencies involved is Catholic Charities. "We're working with several families to help them relocate," said Lupe Savastano, the group's outreach director. "We're hoping to be able to help with a portion of the rent, but a lot of these people are going to need everything—furniture, clothing, help with utilities. We talked with one family who had been there for seven years. Their whole life is being uprooted."
If you were to go to the Mitchell Ranch and visit this community that will cease to exist in less than a month, here are some of the things you might see: nailed to a tree is a hand-painted, crudely lettered sign saying, "Slow, Children at Play." A plastic basketball net is tied to a telephone pole. A pile of children's toys—little plastic action figures—are scattered beneath a tree. A woman sweeps out her home, the crudest of crude shelters, a battered camper shell fleshed out with pieces of plywood. A man sits on a log, feeding tidbits to a skinny German shepherd; in front of him, a pot of something boils over an open fire. Two teenage boys lean against the gutted, tireless hulk of a car, listening to ranchero music over a boombox. A group of younger children run through the brush, playing tag. A baby cries somewhere.
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If you were to visit, you might stop a moment and talk with Jose Torres, who is 50 and has lived here for a year. He would tell you that, like most of the others, he heard of this place by word of mouth. He would point out his trailer, sheltered by several shrubs. (Next door is a shack around which grows a profusion of fruit trees and red roses.) He would tell you that he pays $135 per month in cash for the ground on which to park it. He would tell you that everyone who lives here works. The jobs are mostly menial—gardener, laborer, road crew—and don't pay much, but they are jobs. He would tell you that the parents are careful to make sure their children get to school.
And what of having to leave? He would shrug and say that the people here are concerned but that they have read the fliers and talked with the county people who showed up and so they will do what they have to do. He would tell you that some are concerned that la Migra might show up. He would toss his head toward the big house on the top of the hill and tell you that he—and most of his friends, as far as he knows—have heard nothing from the property owner.
And what is he going to do? He would look at you as if you had just asked a very stupid question. "I am going to find someplace else," he would say. "What else am I supposed to do?"
And if you were to visit this community on the Mitchell Ranch, there is something you should understand: whether you pick strawberries or are the CEO of a high-technology firm, the median price of a house in Orange County is $262,000.