District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is still proud of his 2002 settlement with ARCO. In that case, the oil giant paid the county $8 million to settle a pollution case with potential liabilities in the hundreds of millions.
Rackauckas may have wimped out on ARCO, but congratulate him for taking down a Silverado Canyon horse lover and compost enthusiast.
Last month, after a yearlong effort, a multi-agency task force including county code enforcement officials, Fish & Game wardens and the Orange County district attorney's office won a 12-count conviction against canyon activist Connie Nelson for polluting Silverado Creek, which runs through her property.
The case, as deputy DA Byron Nelson said, was about "horseshit."
When five teenagers flipped their car off of Silverado Canyon Road into Silverado Creek two years ago, Connie Nelson didn't wait around for the government to do something. She got her shit together. For six months—long enough to cook out the feces—she composted horse manure from her stable, carted it to the sliver of land between the road and the creek, and shaped it into a berm two feet high. To keep the berm from sliding into the creek, she planted it with six blackberry bushes—as recommended by the California EPA.
County officials called Connie Nelson's volunteer effort 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."
Also: a "public nuisance."
During her one-week trial, a neighbor complained that Nelson's property smelled like crap and the prosecutor repeatedly referred to Nelson as "paranoid" and the compost berm as "manure." In her defense, Nelson's attorney called to the stand a composting expert who testified that the berm contained no harmful bacteria and was virtually indistinguishable from natural forest soil. Unimpressed, a jury convicted her on all 12 counts.
Paranoid? Consider this: in late 2004, Connie Nelson publicly denounced a proposal to limit horse ownership in rural areas as a "lifetime employment contract" for county code enforcement. A short while later, code enforcement officials showed up at her home—a house, a stable and some land that runs from the sloping canyon walls down to Silverado Creek. They told Nelson to clean up her corral and make a few other improvements, which she agreed to do. But when officials demanded she remove the berm, which she had just planted with blackberry bushes, she refused. Further demands, administrative hearings and refusals followed. Last December, just before Christmas, prosecutors filed charges, and in June People v. Connie Nelson went to court and the district attorney won. Sort of.
At the July 11 sentencing hearing following Nelson's conviction, prosecutors asked the judge to bring out the heavy artillery. They asked Superior Court Judge Elaine Streger to hit Nelson with the heaviest fine possible, confiscate her four horses and slap her with a restraining order to prevent her from "harassing her neighbors." (Nelson admits she's taken pictures of her neighbor walking a dog and leaving poop on the side of the creek.) Finally, the DA asked that Streger make Nelson pay the county $20,000 for legal costs.
"If the defendant does not pay immediately these costs and fines, the people ask that a lien be ordered impressed upon her property in the total of these sums," the DA wrote. He added that Nelson was "obstreperous," "paranoid" and "insanely disconnected."
Nelson told Judge Streger that she was being attacked for being an outspoken activist. "I admit that [deputy DA] Mr. Nelson is a good orator; he beat the crap out of me verbally," she said. "But I don't even have a parking ticket. This courtroom has become a tool for political retribution . . . I'm a community youth leader, volunteer and foster mother, not a criminal. They want me out of the canyon. I had people warn me not to go up against the government. They said they'll beat your ass down the road."
That's when Judge Streger cut Nelson off. "Okay, I'm giving you a lot of leeway here," she said. "Much of what you said doesn't apply to this case. The fact remains that, although you say it was a government vendetta, 12 people [the jury] not connected to the government said you should be convicted of the charges . . . I wouldn't call you a criminal, but you have violated the law."
The judge's decision was a disappointment to the DA. Nelson keeps her horses and her compost berm. There'll be no restraining order. But she'll pay a $5,000 fine and perform 200 hours of community service, along with three years of informal probation.
The judge's decision was a clear sign of the transformation of Orange County. Once dominated by Republicans who believed in limited government and the supreme rights of property owners, the county is now run by activist Republicans—including DA Rackauckas—whose real interests are power, control and an obedient citizenry.
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The judge put it this way: "This kind of concludes the case here, but it doesn't insulate you from further charges if they feel you are violating the law. I guess you could say it's not as laissez-faire as it used to be up in the canyons. I don't know what to say."
After sentencing, Nelson said she was glad she wouldn't have to sell her house to pay legal bills. But she's certain her battle with county officials isn't over.
"I will guarantee you they'll come after me," she said. "Nobody else in the county has been held to these standards. We still have four drug houses up in the canyon and all they're doing is going after me."