One man calls his project on the L.A./Ventura border the pursuit of a dream home, but others just see an illegal solid waste dump.
By Michael Collins
Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – November 16, 2006
Chatsworth resident Todd Doherty began noticing a heavy flow of dump truck traffic heading up and down Woolsey Canyon in November 2004. The 10, “super-10,” and 18-wheelers were on the road to Rocketdyne, ascending over a thousand feet into the heights between the San Fernando and Simi valleys and crossing the county line into Ventura. Doherty counted 80 to 100 of the haulers a day, six days a week, headed for the Santa Susana Mountains, carrying all sorts of concrete and rubble up the super-steep and twisting incline. Doherty found this strange since he thought there was no dump up by the extraordinarily polluted Rocketdyne lab.
“I attributed the heavy flow of dump trucks to the well-publicized Rocketdyne cleanup,” says Doherty, a self-described stay-at-home dad with two young daughters whose wife is a psychiatrist. “But I was puzzled by why all this refuse was going uphill instead of downhill. And there was so much of it.”
By the spring of 2005, Doherty discovered that the trucks were passing the Rocketdyne entrance and using a road on state parkland and dumping their loads of concrete, rebar, tiles, rubble, and dirt on the ridge near the lab along the oldest road in that area, the North American Cutoff, which offers spectacular mountain views of both valleys. Doherty could see that the ridge’s gullies and culverts were being filled with massive amounts of debris. “My immediate response was ‘Who is in charge here?’ because of the sheer magnitude of this operation,” continues Doherty. “So I called [Ventura] county officials looking for an explanation, [but] none was provided because they didn’t know about any grading or dumping.”
In fact, just last May, the county ordered the property owner to “immediately cease the acceptance of any solid waste and fill material,” and that drama is now playing out in court. But since the trucks were first discovered, the neighbors have all come to know the property owner, Wayne Fishback.
Carol and Wayne Fishback began to buy land along the ridge in 2000 and now own 20 acres and control another 100 acres through a purchase agreement. Their thousand-foot-wide swath of picturesque boulder-strewn land runs about a mile along the dirt North American Cutoff. The retired architect from Chicago calls the place a “ranch” and says that he is developing an agricultural operation with some cattle “but primarily for horse ranching,” according to a lawsuit the Fishbacks filed June 6 against Doherty and others, including Fishback neighbor Robert Mionske. The lawsuit contends that the Fishbacks and have been defamed and slandered because Doherty and Mionske say that they’re operating a solid waste dump without a permit. The Fishbacks claim that they’ve suffered two million dollars in damage.
“My wife and I are trying to develop this ranch and our dream home,” says Fishback. “I originally didn’t think they knew what I was doing. They clearly know what I’m doing now from the legal standpoint, so I can’t really say they’re misled anymore. I think they know what I’m doing is perfectly within the law and actually what I’m doing is, to a certain extent, almost required by the law in terms of controlling runoff from your property. Ranchers and farmers have all kinds of regulations on them now in terms of sediment runoff and controlling erosion. It’s almost not even a choice anymore to be a good steward of the land.”
But many of his neighbors are still worried about this definition of stewardship. Doherty says he realized the extent of the dumping in the winter of 2004-2005 when hiking in adjacent Sage Ranch Park and saw the big dump trucks heading there. Shocked at the extensive bulldozing and earth-moving, and the growing expanses of rubble he could see across a canyon, he asked county officials if there were grading permits for the land and found there were none. One county official “told us that in all likelihood he wouldn’t be allowed onto the property in the near future and that if we wanted results we would need to get him pictures of the dumping ‘in progress,'” says Doherty.
Mionske, who used to grade roads on the property for Fishback, hired a helicopter in late June 2005 for $650 to fly over the property to record the effect of the dumping on the land. Photos show canyons filling with dirt and debris; other parts of the property are covered with gullies of broken blocks of concrete with rusting rebar sticking out. Some shots show multiple big rigs angling to dump their loads. Mionske also showed CityBeat three different topographic housing plans for the properties he said were created by Fishback.
“It has been determined now by engineers that over 81,000 cubic yards of unknown/uninspected refuse was imported across Los Angeles city and Los Angeles county roads into and over a state park on state-park-owned, -controlled, and -maintained roads to an unpermitted dump owned by a private citizen,” says Doherty who estimates that approximately 10,000 dump trucks discharged rubble on Fishback’s land, and for good reason – it was cheap.
According to Fishback property gatekeeper, Wayne “Kenny” Ochoa, truckers pay him $25 a load to dump their debris, which could explain their deciding to make the precipitous grade up to Fishback’s property fully loaded. “The cost of disposing a load of construction debris at a Ventura County dumpsite is approximately $400,” according to court papers filed by Fishback last July.
“The truckers pay me $25 per load for spreading out the material they deliver,” Ochoa said in an October 23, 2006 court declaration. “I do not get paid by Wayne Fishback, and I do not pay Fishback anything for the opportunity to stay at the Ranch.”
Mionske finds this fishy, because he says that the truckers sign receipts they drop in a box at the property entrance with each load brought in and that he has repeatedly seen Fishback taking them out and counting them. If Fishback wasn’t getting any of this money, Mionske asks, then why did Fishback buy a tractor from him for $18,000 in 2004 for Kenny to use for the debris spreading? “I warned Kenny because I like the guy,” says Mionske. “‘Fishback is using you like fodder. The IRS is going to come after you.'”
Last May, the Ventura County Environmental Health Division (EHD) came after Fishback with a cease-and-desist order barring any more solid waste being deposited on parts of the property. The order was upheld September 22. “Mr. Fishback in essence has brought in thousands of cubic yards of solid waste, dumped this waste in canyons and ravines on his properties, covered this waste with soil in addition to moving thousands of cubic yards of soil on these properties,” wrote William C. Stratton, EHD’s manager of the Technical Services Section, on September 26. “Mr. Fishback is operating an illegal solid waste disposal site, a ‘dump.'”
The Fishbacks have appealed that decision and point out that the Ventura County Resource Conservation District approved a Hillside Erosion Control Ordinance Plan in June for new dumping areas on the property using clean fill or dirt. “The problem has always been this lack of proper oversight and which agency is in charge of what,” says Doherty. “Why is one agency implementing a cease-and-desist order while another is issuing a ‘plan’?”
On October 19, the Fishbacks sued the County of Ventura claiming that the EHD’s determination that he is operating a solid waste dump without a permit is without merit and is costing him to the tune of two million dollars. “The questions in this case center around what is ‘waste’ and what is not waste,” the lawsuit reads. “Oddly, it can be best expressed in the axiom, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ … .”