This time last year, Ken Shultz's meadow was a favored spot of those who live nearby.
The oak-shaded field of sage and sumac was a pleasant entryway from the main road into Shultz's 400-acre piece of Corral Canyon. Almost every day, a few neighbors rode horses or walked onto Shultz's ranch for a fresh reminder of why they had settled away from the city, in the mountains above Malibu.
Nine months ago, their idyll ended. Shultz invited others to use his property and the meadow was transformed.
The chaparral has been cleared; a dusty patch is dotted now with two wooden shacks, a dozen cars and pickup trucks, a diesel fuel tank, a 50-foot boat propped up for repairs. About 10 men and boys spend their days at the site, grilling food, playing cards or making music with a set of drums and a guitar.
Contractor Ely Simental pays Shultz $500 a month to operate his business there. He calls it C & S Septic Systems.
The angry neighbors call it "Shantytown." Los Angeles County calls it a zoning violation, and so the matter is before Malibu Municipal Court.
Shultz, a licensed dynamiter, and Simental were arraigned there last week on misdemeanor charges of operating a contractor storage yard in an agricultural area. Each said he is innocent; a pretrial hearing is set for Sept. 11.
The case has the makings of a classic Santa Monica Mountains conflict.
One side claims the change in Shultz's meadow is an example of someone using a remote location to flout the law. "So many people up in the mountains take advantage where they don't think others see," said June Rogers, the zoning enforcement investigator who checked out the neighbors' complaints. "This can be a tremendous hazard" in an environmentally sensitive region prone to fires and landslides.
Simental was taken to court last year on a similar charge when his business was based in nearby Puerco Canyon, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Tim Hansen. Simental left the canyon and the case was dropped.
"He knows what he's supposed to be doing," Hansen said.
Shultz and Simental claim the controversy is an illustration of outsiders wanting to control property that is not theirs. "This is my backyard," said Shultz. "The neighbors say the area is ugly, removed of its natural brush. But I have the right to use my backyard the way I want."
Simental has his own theory about the neighbors' true concerns. He came to this country from Mexico 40 years ago. "I've been 30 years in Malibu," he said. "I see the discrimination every day."
Agreed Shultz: "The neighbors just don't want to see Mexicans. For them to call it a shantytown . . . to me, it's an abusive term."
The businesses arrived in Corral Canyon in late November.
When the county forced Simental's operation to move out of Puerco Canyon, he said needed a place for his relatives and other workers to stay when they were not working. He could not ask them to drive back and forth from Oxnard, where all live, every time he had a job for them.
"Nothing was available in an industrial zone in Malibu," Simental recalled. "I would have had to go all the way to Agoura" on the other side of the mountains.
Shultz offered a spot on his ranch; Simental was glad to accept.
He spent more than $3,000 to set up shop, he said. He built one shed to store equipment. He added a plywood overhang to shade his workers, placing an old car seat, some secondhand chairs and a table underneath.
He built another shack to serve as an office, stocking it with desks, a telephone and shelves that hold plaques proclaiming his membership in the Malibu Chamber of Commerce. He brought in a portable toilet.
Before long, four roosters were strutting about. A large metal bowl and grill for barbecues sat on the ground. A volleyball net was available.
The place was so comfortable that Simental's workers took to visiting on weekends for parties.
But the neighbors were not enjoying themselves nearly as much. Over a three-day period, county zoning authorities recorded 17 complaints about the property: It was accused of being an eyesore, a fire hazard, a source of heavy local traffic on the canyon's winding road.
At one point, Shultz and Simental agreed to remove tractors and other heavy equipment. Simental said he now keeps his machinery wherever it is being used.
And, Simental said, county fire officials asked him to stop burning firewood in the canyon. He has since switched to charcoal.
'We've Been Invaded'
But the neighbors were not placated. Donna McFlynn, vice president of the Corral Canyon Homeowners Assn., said she used to walk through the Shultz property but won't even walk past it now. "I feel like we've been invaded, the privacy of the canyon has been invaded," she said.
Said Van Royce Vibber, an investor who lives about a mile down the canyon road: "They're destroying property that is right next to state and federal parkland."
The homeowners deny that prejudice is a motivation for their charges. "I don't have anything against Ely," said Ken Freeland, an ice cream distributor who was the first to file a complaint. "I wish there was a piece of commercial property somewhere he could use. My beef is against what they've done in the canyon."