TRABUCO CANYON — The tiny makeshift community of Porterville has survived floods, windstorms, the Great Indian Trail Fire of 1980, long periods without electricity or water and countless other deprivations for nearly 12 years.
But these days, an air of fearful uncertainty grips the 160 residents of the Trabuco Highlands Ranch, which was established by 63-year-old contractor and rancher Sam Porter.
Children still shriek with laughter while racing on their bikes along the endless bumpy dirt roads. But nearby, their parents wonder and worry about how long they will have a home.
Orange County authorities have ordered the dismantling of Porterville--a ramshackle community of travel trailers and homemade cabins--citing various zoning, health and fire code violations that they allege make the encampment unfit to live in.
The residents have been handed eviction notices that come due today. Yet, none of the 50 or so mostly poor, immigrant families seem to have any desire to leave.
"It shouldn't be up to the county how we're living out here," said Leone Morena, 24, who has lived for six years in a small Porterville trailer. "It's like camping, but we have bathroom facilities, beds, stoves, refrigerators, everything that anyone else has--only more space."
The self-styled community of Porterville is one of scores of illegal encampments dotting the Southland countryside. Most of them house recent Latino immigrants seeking easy access to nearby farm jobs and cheap housing. (Porterville rents hover near $100.)
Some camps, however, most notably in Los Angeles County, were established as havens for drifters and the homeless.
Porterville is at least the third encampment in the Southland to be given the boot this month. On Feb. 10, Los Angeles' so-called City of Lost Souls was demolished by Caltrans workers after its few remaining occupants were resettled.
And in Ventura County, the 22 residents of the encampment established in 1979 by the Ojai Foundation, an alternative learning center rooted in American Indian and Asian culture, packed the last of their belongings Tuesday and moved out of their 40-acre hilltop village. There, too, county officials said the settlement ran afoul of building, fire and environmental health codes.
Like the Ojai settlement, Porterville, with its nearly 240 acres of rolling hills dotted with cactus, majestic coastal oaks and eucalyptus, is among the oldest and most established of the do-it-yourself communities.
Now, its residents, many of whom have been there long enough to plant trees as well as roots, worry that if they are forced out they will lose their jobs because many of them have no means of transportation.
So, reminiscent of the great flood of 1979, when the Trabuco Creek bridge washed out and supplies had to be airlifted to the ranch, Porterville's residents are waiting this one out, their hopes pinned on Sam Porter, the community's namesake and a man equally in trouble.
County prosecutors have charged him with five misdemeanor counts of zoning and fire code violations, which carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail for each count plus possible fines.
A trial date is set for March 5, but prosecutors would not deny that charges might be dismissed if Porterville is closed.
Having issued the eviction notices and taken tentative steps toward relocating "his family," Porter now is not so sure that he will carry out their forced removal.
"I think my best interests might be served by going to trial," he said recently. "I don't think they could find 12 jurors to convict me. Considering the humanitarian and Christian aspects, I don't think they could make a case."
A vocal critic of local government and its handling of development in the county (he ran an unsuccessful campaign against County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez in 1988 and served a term on the Trabuco Canyon Water District Board), Porter charges that he has been targeted for complaints because of his politics and outspokenness.
"The supervisors are a bunch of overgrown toads who hop and croak whenever a developer waves his wand," says Porter.
County officials have long denied Porter's charges. William Grant, enforcement manager for the county Environmental Management Agency who has been trying for years to shut down Porterville, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.
Norma Herbel, the acting enforcement manager, maintained that Porter might be exploiting his so-called family, profiting from the rent he charges while subjecting tenants to deplorable living conditions.
Herbel said the county has been responding to complaints about conditions at the Porter settlement from nearby residents and school officials since 1987. One upset property owner even went out and videotaped activities at the encampment and sent a copy to county officials.