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Supporters of former Marine-turned-Rastafarian assail San Diego County fire board over tax lien

The mood at the rally before the meeting was California mellow: reggae music, dancing and plenty of backcountry bonhomie.

But it grew darker when several dozen supporters of Joseph Diliberti, the former Marine turned Rastafarian and tax-protester, crossed Peaceful Valley Ranch Road to attend Tuesday night’s board meeting of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District.

L3e8h0nc With anger, name-calling and historic analogies, supporters called on the board to back down in its contretemps with Diliberti over a $27,552 unpaid bill for brush clearance.

After refusing to pay the bill or his property taxes for six years, the tab has escalated to more than $62,000 and  left Diliberti, whose sole income is a military disability pension, on the verge of having his three-acre spread east of El Cajon sold by the county at auction to pay back taxes.

One supporter accused the board of acting like "a bunch of fascist dictators who gave their buddies this $25,000 contract."

Diliberti, a Vietnam veteran in his mid-60s, joined in the anger and at one point seemed close to being ejected by San Diego County sheriff’s deputies. 

"You're butchers,” Diliberti screamed at the five-member board. “You came to my land with a chainsaw. You’re gutless, heartless people who don’t know how to smile.”

While most of the crowd supported Diliberti, a mother of three from San Diego told the board that going soft on Diliberti would encourage other scofflaws and increase the chances of another catastrophic fire like those in 2003 and 2007 that destroyed thousands of homes and scorched hundreds of thousands of acres.

"If he gets away with it, what’s to keep other San Diegans from not clearing their brush?” Jill Sorge said as the crowd booed. “I would like to protect my children.”

In the end, the board wouldn't budge.

L3e8hdnc Diliberti’s next venue is the County Board of Supervisors, where he is not likely to get a different decision.

Even a dedicated nonconformist has a responsibility to “live within the bounds of society” when it comes to fire protection, said fire board member Randy Terry.

The meeting at the Jamul firehouse across from the Campo Indian reservation was a freewheeling tutorial on the passions and politics of fire protection in rural San Diego County: pitting property rights vs. property responsibilities.

Each side felt it held the moral high ground.

"I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said, ‘If you’re going to trade your freedom for security, you’ll have neither,'” said Yvonne Reese, a farrier and animal rescuer who supported Diliberti.

In response, Sorge said her children remain traumatized by having to flee the fires. She pointed to pictures she had brought to the meeting of people killed in the 2003 fire.

"These people can’t speak for themselves,” she said.

Diliberti moved from San Diego to the rural area three decades ago, determined to live life in the manner of Henry David Thoreau (whose work he quoted at the fire board meeting).  He built abodes and now spends his days as a sculptor and musician, and eschews such modern conveniences as telephone service, electricity and running water.

After the 2003 fires, a complaint was filed with the fire board about the brush on his land. The fire board attorney said state law prohibits disclosure of  the name of the complainant, but Diliberti is convinced it is a neighbor with whom he has a running feud.

The fire district sent several notices to Diliberti. Part of the controversy is whether he ever saw the notices. He has a habit of not looking in his mailbox for months and sometimes merely burning its contents, unread.

A private company hired by the fire district removed brush from Diliberti’s property in 2004 while he was out of town. He later skipped a board meeting where he could have protested his bill; instead, he filed a lawsuit, which was dismissed.

At the earliest, it will be March before a tax auction can be held. That gives both sides more fire board meetings to press their case.

His supporters have suggested a reduction in the bill. Diliberti will have none of it.

"I don't compromise,” he said. “Either you get rid of that bill or you get rid of me.”

--Tony Perry in Jamul, eastern San Diego County.

Audio slide show: Former Marine does it his way


Top: Joseph Diliberti expresses his anger at San Diego Rural Fire Protection District board members who have assessed Diliberti more than $25,000 for having to clear weeds from his backcountry property.

Middle: San Diego County backcountry residents listen to comments at the board meeting.

Bottom: Diliberti says good night to Reyna Beasley, one of about 50 of Diliberti's supporters after a spirited public meeting of the fire district board in Jamul.

Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (22)

So they are gonna let SDG&E, the PROVEN CAUSE OF MOST OF THE WILDFIRES build another unneeded, toxic, fire-breathing transmission line through precarious wildfire territory, but this guy is getting all the flack, even though he has done nothing wrong?

San Diego, get it together. Stop Sunrise Powerlink NOW or you have no right to persecute innocent people who DON'T start fires. Rooftop solar, no powerlines.

To all our legislators - we are sick of you being owned and operated by Big Energy. You work for US!

If people are so worried about fires then why do they live in fire prone zones? Pretty stupid to live in ire areas if you are scared of fire.
Leave the guy alone. It's obvious someone wants his land and it's an insider deal on the clearance costs. The council probably got some form of kick backs from the brush clearance company.

He's been living off disability payments for how long?

He looks able enough to start supporting himself.

Come on somebody from Holly Wood pay his bill especially all you war heros in Holly Wood. How about Rambo!

He hasn't paid taxes on the land in 6 years, its going to be auctioned off anyway, with or without the ground clearing.

The bigger picture here is the original cost for clearing the brush. Almost 30K to clear brush on 3 acres? If you want to know why the state/country is in this financial mess, its because we give out contracts like this. I bet you that is the going rate to clear brush from all the public parks, mountains etc... Same thing applies to defense contracts, public works contracts and any other contracts the state enters into. After doing my own research I have found that clearing 3 acres of brush costs anywhere between $1700 and $3000. HELLO people they are stealing almost ALL the tax money collected instead of using it to provide for the masses. No wonder he hasn't paid his taxes in 6 years. Only if we were all so brave.

Rastafari stand alone!

People who live in fire prone areas have an obligation to clear brush. My mom has had to do it for I don't remember how long. We have been in a fire and having the brush clear is what saved her house. He could have saved him self a lot of heartache if he would have either of cleared the brush or had it done. Rather, he ignored the requests. While I agree the cost of the brush clearing seems high, the man had other options that he ignored.

I like that they cleared the brush when he was out of town!
then sent him the bill ! when is anyone able to enter private property and do a contract job without the owners permission?
his back taxes are one thing and will catch up with him... cant fight the tax man...
but this brush clearing bill is a huge scam with bigger motives ...!

Jeebus, they cleared his property already - let the man alone.

They're obviously after Diliberti's land.

Shame on them - someone powerful needs to help this poor guy and stop this.

@ HM:

Re: "Almost 30K to clear brush on 3 acres? If you want to know why the state/country is in this financial mess, its because we give out contracts like this."

Seriously - this is a scam. Any honest contractor would have had it done in a day for a few hundred bucks.

At $8,000+ per acre to clear brush it must be a lot more difficult than it looks, and it certainly sounds very profitable. I would guess his lifestyle is unlikely to add to the fire problem compared to the rest of us with our electrical systems, vehicles and landscaping equipment.

So, his neighbors pay the property taxes and weed their land. He doesn't and now he's a hero? I bet he has no problem paying for Rastafarian joints.

Come on folks, he's an eccentric old man looking for his 15 minutes. He isn't above the law and should be paying his taxes like the rest of us. He's had ample time to correct this situation but chooses to become a spectacle and lightening rod for all the kooks to rally around. Public safety shouldn't be compromised for the sake of this dude.

Ummm, the high costs of county brush clearance are only incurred if YOU don't have it done yourself. This is SOP in all fire hazard areas. It doesn't cost much unless you don't do it yourself or have it hired out locally, and then you get a written warning when the Fire Department comes through every spring if there is an issue. If you still refuse or fail to clear, the county comes out and does it for you - thus the high charge. It's a fine, really. Cost to clear my 1/2 acre last month was $300 (bought the house in April, it hadn't been cleared in years). That's because I didn't force the county to do it for me.

This is fascinating with both sides of the argument making valid points. I am glad that every one is seeing the contract fee for clearing the land was exorbitant. One thing that was not brought up was that brush is wildlife habitat and he seemed to want his property in more natural state. I lived in Nevada beside a small parcel that was not cleared. It was not as much of a threat because it was not connected in a major way to more wild land. The fire dept had put out some small fires on in, did not feel it was a major threat and did not request for it to be cleared but only make a break close to the buildings. The 3 acres of brush provided so much wild life habitat that some one who did not spend time observing it, would not believe what lived there and came to visit; quail, rabbit, mice, lizards, hawks, falcons, owls, coyotes, swifts and even a badger hung out for a bit. I think that is way this guy said “"You're butchers,” to the five-member board. “You came to my land with a chainsaw.” I know responsible people have paid their taxes and cleared the brush so they deserve protection, but what about all the wild life? Doesn’t it deserves some protection? Are we going to sterilize our whole society? We need to think much more about where we are building… and even start the conversation about the huge white Elephant nobody wants to admit is creating major problems…our ever expanding population.

I know Joe DiLiberti. He's a Marine veteran who fought in Vietnam, was a successful contractor in San Diego for many years, and decided to lessen his carbon footprint by building structures strictly out of recycled materials and pioneering clay techniques. His work has been featured in the LA Times, SD Union and various architectural magazines. He's able to live off his military pension because he grows all the food he consumes. Apparently self-sufficiency is something that offends many of the posters in t his forum.

I don't care if Mr Joseph Diliberti is a military hero. No one should support this ex-marine because his weeds pose a fire risk to all his neighbors. What makes him think he is better than the rest of and that he is exempt from following rules that are intended for the safety of his neighborhood.
I am an ex-soldier myself and I couldn't possibly steep so low as this ex-marine.
Come on Mr Diliberti! Why do you believe you are better than the rest of? Let's get that hypocritical chip off your shoulder and clean up those weeds!

"He has a habit of not looking in his mailbox for months and sometimes merely burning its contents, unread. "

I think we've all given some thought to that approach once or twice... ;-)

A goat, or a herd of them, would mow his land for free.

Its a common & cheap solution for rural property owners to use livestock this way. Goats are tough, eat anything and get deep down slopes or into corners where mowers can't go.

A $500 goat herd a few years back would have solved this problem.

True Rasta no clear brush, mon.

Gotta love a man who speaks his mind!


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