Besieged In Elk

by Michael Koepf, September 9, 2010

Besieged, T.G. Berlincourt, Trafford Publishing, 2009, 239pp.

Question: does the desire to save the planet, protect pollywogs, make us carbon happy, and provide for a structure-free coastal viewshed exempt us from evil?

Have you ever been to Elk?

When I decided to build my house near Elk nearly 40 years ago, I had my first encounter with a local. A slight, wiry man in a World War Two jeep with a rifle in a scabbard on the outside of his driver’s seat sped up to our building site and skidded to a dusty stop. There was a small, needle-tooth dog yapping in the passenger’s seat. I had heard about the Elk locals — rugged loggers; sheep ranchers; and a crazy guy by the name of Bobby Beacon who allegedly locked drunken friends in coffins until they sobered up (quickly, one supposes) — but I had never met one.

The man in the jeep who skidded to a dusty stop was a local, a sheep rancher in his 60s, who had spent his life on Greenwood Ridge. His name was Francis Fashauer. In fact, the few acres I’d purchased had once been part of his family’s holdings where he and his brother ran sheep and grew apples in a never ending life time warp of subsistence versus the always encroaching forest. Rumor also informed that Francis and his brother had once been official County bear hunters whose ancestral, Germanic prowess had finished off most of the sheep-hungry bears left in Mendocino County. There were none in Elk.

So, what did this rancher want as he turned off his motor, the dust blew away, and he yelled at his dog Trail to shut the hell up? Had our dog been in his sheep? Had I inadvertently trespassed across his land when I drove down to the creek? (I had.) Was I about to receive a stern admonition about barbed wire fences making good neighbors? No. I was about to receive a large bag of vegetables fresh from his garden along with a big smiling “Welcome!” for being his new neighbor.

That’s the way it used to be in Elk.

Ted and Margie Berlincourt got a different kind of welcome when they tried to build a house south of Elk in 1994. Six years later, and after $200,000 in legal expenses, and what amounted to a modern day auto-de-fe by some of Elk’s leading serial activists, the Berlincourts finally built their home near a town where some had come to hate them for simply wanting to be their neighbor.

Ted Berlincourt has recently published a book entitled Besieged. It’s about his initial fun years in Elk as an unwitting clay pigeon strapped in a shooting gallery run by a posse of Elk locals: scenic preservationists, their media allies, self-serving County politicians, and sycophantic, obedient bureaucrats.

In Besieged, a private property owner speaks out to tell us what it was like to be on the receiving end of the most self-righteous inquisition since Tomas de Torquemada put on his pointy hat as environmentalists and bureaucrats rolled up in a love ball. (Think MLPA if this story doesn’t interest you.)

Ted and Margie wanted to build a house — a retirement home on eleven acres of cliffside property south of Elk beach that they purchased in 1980 for the reasonable, pre-bubble price of $250,000. In 1996 Ted was 71; Margie was 69. It was time to retire and head off into the sunset to watch the sunset from their dream house in Elk, a place they discovered driving down a road.

“You’re driving south from the village of Mendocino along the rugged and spectacular California coast some 150 miles north of San Francisco. Nearing the tiny village of Elk, you round a gentle curve, and suddenly the most magnificent panorama of the Pacific coast bursts into view. Giant sea stacks rise above the ocean. Sculptured by the relentless surf, they’ve assumed all manner of contorted shapes: arches, pyramids, grottos, even dinosaurs. It takes your breath away. Impulsively, you pull onto the small turnout at Cuffy’s Cove and reach for your camera. The little village of Elk lies at the left nestled into the mountains. Its brightly colored homes, B&Bs, inns, churches, Post Office, Garage, and general store catch your eye.”

This may be Berlincourt’s first attempt at prose, but it’s clear from his gentle and precise command of language that it was a definite love of place that lured Ted Berlincourt to Elk when he and his wife, Margie, first rounded that gentle curve that turned out to be quite dangerous.

I’ve met the Berlincourts. They’re now their 80s, and in an initial chapter of Besieged, Berlincourt fills us in as to exactly who they are.

Margie Berlincourt is a diminutive, soft spoken lady with the penetrating stare of a woman nobody can easily fool. Margie was born in Canada to a widow on welfare. Education was her ticket up from the bottom. She eventually obtained a PhD in the classics. By the end of her career in Washington DC, which had included a professorship in history, Margie was a Senior Deputy Director at The National Endowment for the Humanities, which hands out tons of free money to Liberals purporting to be artists.

Ted Berlincourt is also soft spoken, but with a personality less gentle. He’s a tall, slim man with a bald head and mustache. If he wore a fedora he’d look a bit like Dashell Hammett, and although Berlincourt doesn’t write fiction, this Thin Man from Elk has little fear of writing exactly what he’s thinking. In Besieged his prose is exacting, ironic, but often sardonically understated as evidenced by Berlincourt’s initial description of what he terms “…the Elk Anti Faction.”

“Most members of the Anti Faction were swept into Elk by the vacuum created when the County's lumbering activity ended, the population plummeted, and real estate bargains became irresistible to those seeking low-cost housing. Many were sixties generation hippies, many were environmentalists, many were anti-Vietnam-War activists, and many were hoping to practice their drug culture without interference from authorities.”

Where better than this remote Eden?

Does the above passage mark Ted Berlincourt as some sort of fire-breathing conservative? No. As one reads Besieged, readers will find Berlincourt more an old school traditionalist than a Tea Party radical. However, as one reads Besieged we learn that County bureaucrat, Mary Stinson, working for the Department of Building Services, once “disparagingly” referred to the Berlincourts as “Republicans,” chiding them for their “attempt to move to Mendocino county” even though she had no actual knowledge of their political associations.

The R-word is the N-word in the region of love and peace.

In fact, there’s nothing particularly radical about Ted Berlincourt at all, save his love of Margie, his family, and the natural world around him. Oh, and one more thing: his deep-seated ability to peer into the quantum chaos of the cosmos and explain it conservatively. In other words, Ted Berlincourt is a scientist — a physicist, in fact, a skilled practitioner of the scientific method where evidence trumps bullshit. As one turns the pages in Besieged, we quickly discover that the County and the eco-intolerants made a big mistake when they took on Ted Berlincourt.

Ted Berlincourt grew up in The Great Depression and served with George Patton as Patton raced into Germany. Berlincourt was not a rich kid. He was Midwestern and middle class; that was enough. After the war, Ted became a physicist who earned a PhD from Yale. He worked on the Apollo Program for North American Aviation; was chairman of the Physics Department at Colorado State University, and later worked as Director of the Physical Sciences Division at the Office of Naval Research. Oh, and along the way, Ted Berlincourt teamed up with co-physicist, Dr. Richard R. Hake, and together they brought to the world’s attention the superconducting properties of niobium-titanium alloys which led to the most significant dynastic tool of the twentieth century: magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, which has saved how many lives?

Unfortunately, Ted and Margie’s career credentials were not good enough for the environs of Elk where dwell various medical marijuana profiteers, tax-free corporations; new age mystics; bummy writers (self included); bad poets (self not included); urchin harvesters (one); B&B owners and B&B wage slaves; serious, serial activists; one failed politician (Norman de Vall); geriatric surfers, and the additional, assorted refugees from accomplishment one usually finds amidst the pristine beauty of Mendocino County.

Members of Elk’s “anti faction,” as Berlincourt aptly describes them, regularly protest the “scourges of the modern industrial world… some of its members, the waste matter of the higher education establishment, are quite articulate in espousing liberal causes. They are the ringleaders… they get their ultra, hate America on weekday mornings by tuning to Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” on KZYX/KZYZ…”

Yep, when it comes to Elk, Berlincourt is not timid in naming the super conductivity of the liberal niobium-titanium alloys that exist in its presence.

On the other hand, Ted and Margie Berlincourt’s attempt to build a house in Elk did have supporters; most were from “old time” Elk families and their descendants who were always happy to add new residents. But, in the Elk heart of darkness, Ted and Margie Berlincourt were well aware of the quirky nature of some of the locals.

“…They’ve adopted a not in my back yard (or front yard) attitude… The possibility that it might be a good idea for scenic enhancement to begin at home with their own properties evidently hasn’t occurred to them.”

Berlincourt writes of numerous residents who opposed his house who had built their homes without County building permits. However, in their initial application for a County building permit, Ted and Margie were prepared to make concessions. For instance, they were willing to cede several acres of their property to State Parks in order that the south end of Elk beach could be entirely owned by the State. They also planned to use the lowest part of their property so as not to obstruct views of the sea from Highway One, and they were willing to underground all utilities.

And what did this environmental largesse and concessional attitude get them?

Most of us recall George Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead where the zombies stiff-leg about drooling and mumbling in quest of living flesh. Okay, set it in Elk. The Berlincourts are fresh meat and… Well, you got it: Enviro-zoms staggering around their lives for the next four years.

In Besieged, Ted Berlincourt lists all the all bloody details.

The Berlincourts were falsely named “developers,” the darkest word in the environmental lexicon. There were depictions of their future home as a sprawling, two-story monstrosity that in reality would morph into just another B&B. (One of their key opponents, Leslie Lawson, owned a B&B.) There was a Community Center meeting aimed at keeping them out of town. A cartoon was circulated (drawn by a guy who had spent years living in his car) depicting menacing high rise buildings marching over the hills to descend on Elk with the implied message that the Berlincourts were in the forefront of Elk’s transformation to Los Angeles.

Worst of all, there was a petition in the Elk store opposing their home. One hundred and sixty three people signed the petition. Berlincourt explains the signatures.

Seventy were from Elk residents and the remainder from whatever tourists from Fairbanks, Alaska, London, England, Yazoo, Mississippi happened to stop by the Elk store for bubble gum.

Some Elk residents took exception to the petition and stopped shopping at the Elk store. It hadn’t been the Berlincourts' intention to ignite a conflict between different factions of Elk, but the little village was, after all, just a powder keg waiting for a spark.

Forty-nine Elk residents signed a counter-petition, but at the core of the book Berlincourt lays out with exactness (sometimes painfully exactly) his bum’s rush by varied County and state bureaucracies with key politicians and prodding Elk environmentalists looking over their shoulders as the Berlincourts run the gauntlet through the building permit process, are turned down, appeal to the County supervisors, are turned down again, and, finally, are forced to sue the County, which is then forced to fold its tent because of its obvious prejudice and incompetence. And, just as the Berlincourts think the torture’s over when they finally receive a County building permit, they are attacked, once again, by that villainous tag team known as the Sierra Club and Coastal Commission.

In Besieged, Berlincourt has no fear of naming those ranked against him. (Recall, he followed Patton into Hell.) Norman de Vall hovers continuously in the shadows lusting for eco-blood. Berlincourt busts him out. While de Vall was still a seated supervisor Berlincourt discovered (when he sued the County) that Count de Vall was communicating behind the scenes with the original project coordinator for the Berlincourts' coastal development permit that must be issued by Mendocino County’s Department of Planning and Building Services.

“Most shocking,” Berlincourt writes, “was de Vall’s hand-written response passed to Ruffing on a small, undated 4” x 6” slip of paper… In our view this was totally improper and illegal. In effect, a potential judge was telling the civil servant what position to adopt in the case.”

de Vall’s name appears frequently in Besieged; more than any other when it come to the “anti-faction.”

Elk, uber-activist Mary Pjerrou comes in for a close second. According to Berlincourt, Pjerrou is infamously known for baring her breasts at protests against GAP stores whose parent company owns timber lands in Mendocino County.

“We’d rather wear nothing than wear Gap… off comes the clothing and up go the cheers,” writes Berlincourt, whose big fear was that Pjerrou would strip in front of him!

Berlincourt reports that Pjerrou did scotch tape her lips at a hearing for the Berlincourts at Board of Supervisors, falsely claiming that she was being forced to shut up because the Berlincourts were about to hit her with a SLAPP suit.

“Duct tape would have been more effective,” Berlincourt continues. “We of course had no such grandiose aspirations, we just simply wished to enjoy our retirement by the sea.”

Deceased Elk Sierra Club luminary, and former Mendocino Woman of the Year, Hillary Adams, makes a grand appearance. Adams once believed — in mind and print — that government aircraft were spewing “chem-trails” high over Elk using Elk's residents as unwitting guinea pigs. Well, she did have a PhD. Adams was dominant in bringing the Sierra Club into the fray against the Berlincourts.

Berlincourt documents his chapters with copious material obtained in discovery. He lays it all out with the precision of the scientist he is, although there are moments (at a hearing with the County Board of Supervisors) when he candidly vents his frustrations: “I expressed how difficult it was for me as a physicist to function in that environment. Deceit and exaggeration are career ending in scientific circles.”

As examples, here are some brilliant e-mails between two bureaucrats with State Parks skilled in exaggeration: Berry and Shannon, who were using the issue of “vegative screening” to delay the Berlincourts' permit.

“OK, Dude, we’re on line and ready to rock. Got all your stuff from Berlincourt. Wow…” and later: “Was he mad?” Followed even later with: “They had the balls to tell me that there is (sic) enough existing scrubs on the site that will effectively screen the house… I almost puked…”

Nice, and all part of their tax funded work day.

Nowadays, as I drive along the coast, say, past Salmon Point with its coastal proliferation of mansions, or when I sit in the bar at the Little River Inn looking out on that glass monstrosity somebody has built on the point, I wonder how did they all so easily do it, when the Berlincourts went through hell? I guess it's a matter of luck, or, perhaps, who you know, or where you choose to build.

I wouldn’t try Elk.

In Besieged Ted Berlincourt wonders too. By the end of the book, he even attempts some conclusions. Berlincourt offers that behind the scenes State Parks was always interested in acquiring his property to create a scenic overlook of Elk beach with parking for 50 cars. They didn’t have the funds, so they worked behind the scenes through some initial sub-rosa contacts with Norman de Vall, always ready and willing to play the important man. And, it’s interesting to note — and Ted Berlincourt does — that while he was going through permit hell, another property was being developed and built right next door! — “a visually prominent house” read: a windowed monolith that blocks views of the ocean from Highway One (my italics and depiction) built by Elizabeth Crahan. “Interestingly,” Berlincourt states tongue in cheek, “the Elk opposition offered no opposition whatsoever to the Crahan project. We considered adopting Mrs. Crahan’s adult sons, Charlie and Steve. But we thought better of it because of their wives' active opposition to our project.”

Charlie is, of course, Charlie Acker, who writes a scintillating weekly column for the Mendocino Beacon about Elk and himself as the nuclear center of sniffy, Elk ennui. (Again, my assessment, not Berlincourt’s) Nonetheless, the Crahan house rose without opposition as the Berlincourts' languished, and there is a letter discovered in the Berlincourts' discovery of Acker soliciting consideration with a Sierra Club significant for his mother’s project that Berlincourt has shared. (The letter does not appear in the book.) Perhaps the letter was ineffective, but, who knows, one house went up without a peep from environmentalists and the other one didn’t.

Whatever happened or did or not happen behind the scenes, Berlincourt took it like a gentleman. “…we were very pleased to learn of the approval of the Crahan application…” Berlincourt writes without rancor.

If one is interested in things Mendocino or the property rights of an individual versus government functionaries spurred on by people unaware of the fact that so-called good intentions can often be madness, then Besieged is well worth reading. This is a worthy book written by a worthy man who gave something significant to the world, and who now tells us what happened when he decided to build his dream home near a little town called Elk.

A jolly rancher did not bring him vegetables.

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