Nightmare in the hills
Sprawling commercial marijuana production is destroying peaceful foothills life and the environment
Deer Peak Lake Estates. The name of this development in Yankee Hill conjures images of oak- and pine-studded rolling hills, wildlife and, of course, a body of water.
To some degree, that picture is accurate. Lake Oroville is the backdrop for several of the residences in this small community of 10-acre-minimum hilly parcels tucked near the West Branch of the Feather River. The scenery is what attracted many of its longtime residents, including Patricia Vance and her husband, Donald, who purchased property there decades ago and built a nice, ranch-style home.
During a recent chat in her kitchen, Patricia recalled some of the early years living in the area. She and her neighbors would take leisurely walks, enjoying the beauty and clean air of the small foothills community. Not anymore. These days, the couple won’t even hang out in their own front yard.
“It smells like a family of skunks out there,” Vance said, referring to the strong odor of pot this time of year.
Marijuana growers bought the property next door about three years ago and are growing dozens of plants in close proximity. Vance lists a slew of reasons the garden is problematic, and she’s actively trying to rid the region of what she considers a scourge on the health and well-being of the residents and the natural environment, as well as a cause of declining property values.
“Not only has the economy ruined our property values, but now we have this,” she said.
During a drive near her tucked-away home, it’s clear that the neighboring garden is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to pot production in the region. A couple of grows are fairly obvious. One on Lower Gulch Road is somewhat blocked behind a recently constructed suburban-looking wood fence, an especially conspicuous feature in the rural landscape.
“They’ve taken over,” Vance said. “All they do here is grow pot.”
Deputy Jay Freeman of the Butte County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that the area is indeed riddled with marijuana grows. In fact, he estimates about half of the properties in the development of about 40 parcels contain gardens. Most of them are cultivated under the auspices of Proposition 215, the Compassionate Use Act.
Freeman is a “designated area deputy” whose primary responsibility is responding to calls for service in the rural communities of Yankee Hill, Concow, Butte Valley and Cherokee. Freeman is acquainted with many residents living in the region, especially folks in Deer Peak Lake Estates, and in particular with Vance, who has repeatedly complained to local law-enforcement officials about the pot-related problems she witnesses in her once-idyllic neighborhood.
One complaint played out last week in Butte County Superior Court, where Vance testified against a neighbor who was accused of multiple misdemeanor environmental crimes and trespassing.
During a short trial last Monday (Aug. 23), Judge William Lamb found Deer Peak resident Kenneth Ralph Davis guilty of maintaining a public nuisance and obstructing water of the state (a violation of the state Fish and Game code). During the proceedings, Deputy District Attorney Dan Ledford submitted evidence showing that Davis had installed a 2,500-gallon water tank on land belonging to Union Pacific Railroad in the Rich Gulch area to pump water up to his land, which, as shown in photos, was the site of a marijuana garden.
About a year ago, neighbors told Freeman about seeing Davis using heavy equipment in a gorge outside of his property bounds, and during the deputy’s investigation over the winter, he located the large, crudely buried tank connected to PVC piping running up a steep hillside to Davis’ Patton Peak Road property. Vance helped Freeman find the container (equipped with a pump and run off a battery).
In court, Ledford asked Vance about a subsequent encounter with Davis. She told the judge that he drove his Caterpillar in front of her home and dug up the roadway and taunted her, saying she could do nothing because he (as a Deer Peak resident) has an easement. She said Davis then threatened her.
“He told me he would tear up every road in our community if I didn’t mind my own business,” she said.
Vance isn’t taking any chances with her safety. She has heard gunshots on several occasions at the neighboring property, and she keeps a loaded Beretta and a sawed-off shotgun handy.
As her eyes watered throughout an hours-long interview, Vance noted that it’s just one of the physical ailments she believes is a direct result of living next to a grow. The people tending to the plants live in tents without proper sanitation, and they use toxic pesticides and herbicides, she said. Vance points out that the growers in the region are not the stereotypical earth-loving people often associated with medicinal cultivation.
Indeed, it was clear during Davis’ court appearance that he had little regard for the environment.
Fish and Game warden Josh Brennan testified that, prior to Davis’ excavation work, the site had been an isolated wetland. He pointed out dried-up cattails and other pond-like features that had once provided habitat for microinvertebrates, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals.
“That entire food chain was completely removed,” explained Brennan.
Brennan described how the watershed would ordinarily overflow into Lake Oroville. In other words, the defendant was stealing from one of California’s sources of drinking and agricultural water supplies.
Water supplies are scarce in Deer Peak Lake Estates, and water is key to marijuana production, especially in the foothills’ crop-unfriendly clay soil. The Vances know how difficult it is to work with the natural environment. They have spent more than 20 years working to transform the barren clay directly surrounding their nicely appointed oak-shrouded home into a miniature paradise with a couple of small, well-manicured lawns, awnings, shrubs and flowers.
To grow marijuana in this environment, cultivators use backhoes to dig huge holes and truck in good soil and decomposed granite. In many instances, growers clear-cut and excavate (often without necessary permits for moving large quantities of dirt) the hillsides into terraced steps. (Several of Vance’s neighbors are currently in a separate dispute with Davis, who allegedly clear-cut a roadway through their private properties.)
Davis, who represented himself and waived his right to remain silent, attempted to justify his actions. He told Lamb that he’d purchased the property above the site a couple of years ago and had wanted to build a house there. He claimed he was renting the land to someone else, and that a well at the place was not pumping adequate amounts of water. He also claimed ignorance when it came to the trespassing charge.
Under cross examination by Ledford, who had successfully objected to most of the defendant’s testimony, a frustrated Davis admitted to digging the hole and placing the tank in it.
“I put the tank in the ground thinking it was my property,” he said.
That admission contrasts starkly with what he had originally told Freeman last September. The deputy, who also testified during the trial, noted that early in his investigation, before he had located the tank, Davis denied neighbors’ allegations that he’d installed such a device.
Freeman noted that Deer Peak Lake Estates isn’t an isolated case. Unregulated pot grows are all over the foothills, and unmitigated environmental damage, similar to the sort committed by Davis, is happening right along with them.
“He’s one example of many,” he said.