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The latest development at Santa Margarita Ranch

A farming couple suspects a lawsuit against them is about more than a road

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- KEEP OUT :  Miranda (pictured) and Michael Joseph will soon meet the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC in court. If they lose a lawsuit brought by the ranch owners, the Josephs will no longer be allowed on a narrow dirt road their family has used for about 40 years. -  - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • KEEP OUT : Miranda (pictured) and Michael Joseph will soon meet the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC in court. If they lose a lawsuit brought by the ranch owners, the Josephs will no longer be allowed on a narrow dirt road their family has used for about 40 years.

An unlit Marlboro Red bounced between Michael Joseph’s pursed lips as he spoke. His voice was as coarse and dry as the rugged dirt road he was traveling. The inside of his large white pickup smelled of spent cigarettes and Red Bull and there was a large stick jammed into the pocket of the passenger’s side door, one of the “trinkets of nature” he gathers during trips to his farm.

Riding along the road, he seemed to have a story for everything; the type of guy who laughs constantly and jabs you in the shoulder to make sure you’re listening. There was the time, he laughed, that he helped pull a neighbor’s farm truck out of the mud but in the process got his truck stuck, too, and had to call AAA.

He can’t help but remember how things used to be, when neighbors talked out their problems over a cup of coffee instead of in court.

“It’s changed,” he said. “It’s sad.”

Plenty has changed for the Josephs recently. The Josephs own a home at the southern edge of Santa Margarita and a 130-acre cattle farm a few more miles south. They bought the home because it’s a few blocks from a road that leads to their farm.

In late June 2007, however, the owners of Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC, (Doug Filipponi, Karl Wittstrom, and Rob Rossi) sued the Josephs and Miranda’s brother Nicholas Young, seeking to block them from using the road.

The lawsuit alleges they trespassed on the Santa Margarita Ranch, poached animals there, and left abandoned vehicles. The ranch owners want a court order to block the Josephs from using the road. The road is an historic easement, which allows the Josephs to cross over the ranch property to access their farm.

Really, it’s more path than road: Michael’s truck bounced violently each time the tires fell into one of thousands of potholes. The road has some sentimental value for Michael and Miranda. They take the bumpy drive between their house and farm; they ride their horses on it; and they call it the “principal artery.”

Miranda said she had a story for every tree on along the road. For her, it’s more than a road; it’s part of her family history. The road’s been there for nearly 150 years. But after decades of sharing with other ranchers and farmers, Michael and Miranda are now fighting for their right to keep using it.

Miranda’s family bought the farm in the 1960s, when she and her brother Nicholas were kids. Her parents built a cabin there: a small place with no electricity and walls made of naked wood planks. Inside there’s a picture of her mom and dad posed American Gothic style in front of a half-built cabin. Instead of a pitchfork, her dad held a broom, and wore a woven hippie headband.

Miranda and Michael talk nostalgically about how things used to be, and how things changed when the Santa Margarita Ranch, LLC, became their new neighbors. Miranda and Michael’s farm is virtually an island surrounded by a sea of Santa Margarita Ranch. Plans for development on the ranch could leave them and other landowners in the area surrounded by 400 homes, a golf course, a clubhouse, restaurants, an amphitheater, galleries, gift shops, wineries, and an executive retreat.

Most of the trespassing and related charges against them have been embellished, the Josephs argue. For example, the poaching incident occurred when Michael’s uncle brought a friend to the farm. The friend decided to go out hunting (Miranda stressed he was told not to leave the farm), but he wandered onto the Santa Margarita Ranch.

They know this because an ESPN crew was filming a show on turkey hunting and the friend shot the turkey the crew was pursuing.

Filipponi said the Josephs had trespassed before—ventured too far from their easement—but without a court order to block their access to the easement, the ranch owners couldn’t summon law enforcement.

“They wouldn’t use [stay on] their easement,” he said. “They were trespassing.”

But the Josephs think the lawsuit is about more than poached turkeys and trespassing. Miranda said she was riding horses one day and passed surveying crews that were testing the soil. She asked what they were doing and was told the owners were getting ready to build houses.

A few days later, Miranda said, she was being sued. She’s been a critic of the project and is certain the lawsuit was filed to try to keep her quiet.

“Oh yeah,” Miranda said with small fruit flies buzzing around her while standing outside the cabin; “I’ve spoken out quite, quite frequently.”

She’s spoken at public hearings about the project and raised questions directly to the developers.

SLO County supervisors late last year approved the first phase of development for the project. The first phase includes the construction of 111 homes proposed as an agricultural cluster development, but was widely blasted for its unprecedented potential environmental impacts.

Filipponi said the lawsuit has nothing to do with the project or silencing critics. But the project has played a role in what would otherwise be a dispute between neighbors. According to court documents, the ranch owners believed Miranda was a member of Santa Margarita Area Residents Together (SMART), which organized to oppose the project. She wasn’t. They also asked for a different judge because Superior Court Judge Charles Crandall was an attorney for SMART before he became a judge.

“It didn’t matter who the individual was,” Filipponi said. As for removing Crandall: “He sued us, for God’s sake, several times over the last 10 years when he was in private practice.”

Although there’s no court order to prevent the Josephs from using the road, the ranch owners installed surveillance cameras at the main gate to the easement. After the lawsuit was filed, someone started cutting the Josephs locks on the gate to the road. When the Josephs put on a lock that couldn’t be cut; someone filled in the keyhole with liquid weld.

Roy Ogden is representing the Josephs. He thinks it’s a
David-and-Goliath situation, another example of rich developers hitting critics with a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). Ogden also represented Colleen Enk, who was sued for speaking out against sand mining operations along the Salinas River, New Times reported last October.

“I guess it’s the absence of any reasonable facts to support the lawsuit … that makes me believe, you know, these people aren’t dumb, they did it for a good reason,” Ogden said of the ranch owners.

There were never any problems for years before the lawsuit, Ogden said. As the project was about to go to county planning commissioners, and as Miranda was raising questions about the new bulldozers she was seeing, that’s when it turned into a court battle.
Again, Filipponi said, not so.

“They never voiced any kind of disapproval with our project until we wanted them to stay on their easement,” he said. “So I think it’s the other way around.”

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in September. After the court makes a decision, the ranch owners will continue their plans for development. For the Josephs, the decision could mean another story they’ll tell about the way things used to be.

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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