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The Cow in the Driveway

Rancho Navarro is a subdivision of 135 ten-acre lots nestled in the woods northwest of the Navarro General Store. Most properties lack permanent dwellings, giving the steep terrain a parklike atmosphere. Hidden behind hills and tall fences are cannabis grows, some a few plants and others in giant greenhouses. For years residents resented the generator noise and truck traffic but rarely challenged what might belong to the shadowy underworld. The legalization of cannabis in 2016 drew new owners. Some, like my neighbors--a tall bearded dreamboat with an Irish brogue and a bright mile-a-minute talker from the Tennessee hills who “couldn’t get rid of my accent no matter how I tried”--were young couples looking to go back to the land. Cultivating openly, they became a lightning rod for long-standing grievances. A letter to The Advertiser and another to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors denounced the growers as a menace to the community. Members of the seven-person Rancho Navarro Association Board of Directors, which controls a large budget devoted primarily to maintenance of the paved roads, met with attorneys in an attempt to modify the Association’s rules (CC&Rs) to curb cannabis cultivation. They produced an 11-page document outlining a cumbersome business permit procedure and a schedule of penalties that included a $7700 fine for cutting down a tree. The legal bill for this endeavor was $16,065. Uncomfortable with granting broad powers to the unpaid Board, RNA members on both sides of the cannabis issue signed a veto petition forcing the proposal’s withdrawal.

Feelings ran high before this July’s election for three open seats on the Board. Along with the mailed ballots, the Board enclosed four pages defending its actions, which included: “The cannabis culture is worrisome for parents raising young children here.” “Property owners feel afraid. There are strangers on the Ranch and some behave badly.” “Many owners believe that the concentration of growers in this community reduces the value of individual properties and creates a negative reputation for Rancho Navarro.”

Although I’ve never been a grower, I ran for the Board advocating mediation rather than the hiring of lawyers. In an emailed rebuttal to the Board’s electioneering, I included the following vignette:

I’m the sort of nerdy engineer who carries multiple pens and a spiral bound notepad in his breast pocket, habitually forgets to wear a belt, and has intractable cowlick. I have never been in a law school class. More years ago than I care to admit, a developer proposed squeezing three lots on a common driveway in the Short Street cul-de-sac around the corner from my house. The neighbors were outraged, and one of them hired an attorney to speak before the Planning Board. Lawyers charge an unconscionable amount of money to pay for their wood-paneled office, sexy secretary, and video game playing between cases, so they rarely spend their three-figure-an-hour time exploring the intricacies of local zoning laws. Being in only two figures, I did.

The Planning Board consisted of two men and a woman, middle aged, casually dressed, and apparently arriving from a white collar day job. Our attorney, a young man with swept-back hair and a brown pin-striped suit, threw legal jargon at the Board, which didn’t appear particularly enchanted.

After he finished, I stood. “Suppose a cow wandered down Short Street, laid down in the middle of the common driveway, and died. Who would remove the cow? Should they cut it in half?” [laughter]…

I understood that the weakness of the developer’s plans lay in the easement over the common driveway that each owner possessed, something our attorney never emphasized. After we won the case, half a dozen of my neighbors walked up to me and shook my hand. No one approached that lawyer.

I’m three-and-one in traffic court. My only defeat came in Wyoming, with whose legal system I was unfamiliar, before a judge in black robes on an enclosed bench in a chamber with seats for over a hundred. Although I was in over my head, the prosecutor, an attractive young woman who had just handled a burglary case in the same courtroom, granted me a plea bargain, probably for having the courage to argue before the proud silver-haired trial judge. Because the RNA Board is unpaid, it can have my legal services for $300 an hour less than what their other attorneys charged.

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