John Etter isn't a member of any environmental group. He doesn't know his way around the halls of Ventura County government and has no friends in influential places.
Still, Etter is proof that a little guy from Simi Valley can take on developers, City Hall and scads of federal, state and local agencies. And win.
Earlier this year, it wasn't unusual for Etter, a tall, lean man with an unruly mustache, to take 12-mile runs in the hills of Tapo Canyon, just a few miles north of his home, before heading off to Van Nuys, where he works as an engineering technician in General Motors' Vehicle Emission Lab.
Etter cherished his solitary wilderness runs, so when he noticed earthmovers slicing the tops off hills and bulldozing over topsoil and natural vegetation, or when he jogged past 2 1/2-foot-deep erosion gouges and dammed-up riverbeds, he grew alarmed.
He began making calls. Etter called the city of Simi Valley, the county Planning Department, its Public Works Department, the district attorney's office, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Department of Fish and Game, and a handful of local newspapers.
He called everyone he could think of.
"I must have had 50 phone calls on my February telephone bill," Etter said. "That was before I found out about the toll-free line to the government center."
Etter also wrote letters. Two to Michael D. Bradbury, Ventura County's district attorney. Several to the county's Public Works Department. Some to Fish and Game and one to the Agriculture Department. It was the start of a long and frustrating correspondence.
Etter wanted to find out what was going on in the remote hills of Tapo Canyon, far from the public eye. And he wondered whether whoever was doing it had the appropriate permits and government approval. It took him a long time to learn anything.
"You have to stay on them the whole time, or they'll just sit on it and hope it goes away," Etter said of his forays into bureaucracy. "I was told at the onset by government agencies that this would not go anywhere."
But Etter persisted.
Scored a Victory
And Monday, the Ventura County district attorney's office announced that Big Sky Ranch Co., the developer that bulldozed 80 acres of land in Tapo Canyon, had agreed to pay a $100,000 fine and mitigate the damage with extensive landscaping.
The district attorney's office said it was the largest such fine ever levied in Ventura County for illegal grading. It was also one of the only times that law enforcement had ever moved to prosecute such an action.
"I'm pleased," Etter said Tuesday, basking in the afterglow of his victory. "I got sick at what I saw, and I felt it was my obligation to report it. What I learned is that you can do it if you are persistent, insistent and don't give up."
Big Sky Ranch, a partnership that includes Santa Monica-based Watt Industries, one of California's biggest real estate developers, agreed to the civil penalties without admitting any wrongdoing or liability.
"We didn't believe we did anything wrong, but the county felt otherwise," said Ted Cox, a senior vice president with Watt Industries. He said his firm graded the land "to increase the agricultural use of the property."
County officials however, charged that the land was graded in anticipation of an almost 2,000-unit housing development and small shopping center that Big Sky has proposed for 3,000 acres of the 10,000-acre Big Sky Ranch, which is on unincorporated county land north of the city of Simi Valley between Sand and Tapo canyons.
Major development there would require annexation by the city and approval by Simi Valley's Planning Commission and City Council. The developers earlier this year applied to the city for the necessary zoning changes to build such a project.
"We believe this was not done for agricultural purposes," Brose said. But he added that "no matter how you look at it, illegal grading occurred."
Brose said the grading leveled hills 30 feet high; dammed Tripas Canyon Creek, a tributary that flows into Canyon Creek; removed acres of topsoil, and caused erosion that led to sediment buildups downstream.
Big Sky claimed that it graded the land so it could plant safflower, although a U.S. Soil Conservation District official said erosion and disruption of the topsoil caused Big Sky to lose an estimated 70% of its harvest.
Brose said the grading cost Big Sky about $150,000, an excessively high amount to spend for growing a few crops. The district attorney's office enlisted the help of a soil expert at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, who said about the same thing.
In addition to the monetary fine, the agreement calls for Big Sky to unblock the waterway, install terraces, build sediment-retention basins, and plant additional vegetation to combat erosion and reduce the hillside "scars."
Brose said Simi Valley already has taken steps to limit the number of homes that Big Sky could build in Tapo Canyon. He said that although Big Sky has created flatlands on which higher home densities are usually permitted, the developer will be held to the hillside density restrictions that existed before the firm graded the land.
As for Etter, he's been forced to find other running routes. Big Sky has prohibited him from trespassing on their land, and he doesn't want any more trouble.
Besides, flush from his first triumph in government, Etter says he's planning another campaign.
"I want the city of Simi Valley to strengthen its oak tree ordinance," he said.