We're big fans of the 1974 noir thriller Chinatown. If you don't remember the film, it centers around a powerful businessman in circa-1937 Los Angeles, who uses his political connections at the Department of Water and Power to force poor farmers out of the San Fernando Valley and, after buying the land cheaply, to irrigate it with city water. Of course, the true-to-life corruption in Los Angeles County over the years has dwarfed the fictional corruption in this movie. But recent developments in the Antelope Valley make us wonder if another sort of land grab is going on.
building code violations in the construction of "Phonehenge West," his elaborate, 20,000 square foot home. Aside from the obvious property-rights issues at stake, criminal prosecution seemed to us like an outrageously overbearing approach for LA County to take. But what's much, much worse is that Fahey's experience is hardly an isolated incident. According to an investigation by the LA Weekly, harassment of landowners in the high desert by the County's Board of Supervisors is startlingly common.
At the heart of the matter are the Board's so-called Nuisance Abatement Teams, established in 2006 by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes the vast unincorporated stretches in the north county. According to the Weekly, many of the loners and other iconoclasts who call the desert home are being harassed by inspectors and sometimes by armed agents. Some are being told to leave, others are being told to dismantle their homes and being threatened, like Fahey, with prosecution if they don't comply. One couple, pulled over in their car in Palmdale, actually got a traffic citation for illegal land use; the man in the car, Chip Romary, spent four days in jail over the matter. Many of those trying to obtain the proper permits for their homes face interminable red tape. According to Fahey, "they are doing this to thousands of people." And Pastor Oscar Castaneda of the Sanctuary Seventh-Day Adventist Church is just one of many Valley residents complaining about the County's policy of trumping up cases against harmless residents that the local communities value.
Reason's Tim Cavanaugh views the work of the Nuisance Abatement Teams as part of a broader trend of class warfare in LA, in which the county bureaucracy enforces the aesthetic tastes of urban elitists. While there's probably something to this theory, we can't help but think about a story we wrote yesterday, about the green-ification of this same corner of LA County. According to the LA Times report we referenced, just as his NATs are forcing rural residents from their homes, Antonovich is very actively pushing to turn large parts of the Antelope Valley into wind farms and solar power plants. Two large solar installations have already been approved, and eight other renewable-energy projects are currently being evaluated. And many of the people who live near the proposed wind farms are nervous about noise, fire risks, and declining property values.
So, our question is this: what if these two stories are related? What if Antonovich is using code violations as a pretext for forcing property owners off of their land, enabling that land to be either bought cheaply or seized during legal proceedings, so that this particularly wind- and sun-blasted part of the county can be dedicated to green energy? The possibility would certainly be intriguing to the rest of Los Angeles, which would have a major new energy source right on the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains. We could be missing something, but the coincidence here is impossible for us to ignore.