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He stood his ground but may lose his land

Joseph Diliberti — veteran, Rastafarian, flutist and iconoclast — refused to pay a San Diego County weed abatement bill in 2004. The amount has now ballooned to $69,322, and he may see his three-acre spread sold at auction.

March 15, 2011|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Joseph Diliberti is battling San Diego County officials over an unpaid weed-abatement bill. He says he is unfazed by government regulations. There are few, if any, historical or legal precedents to suggest what will happen next.
Joseph Diliberti is battling San Diego County officials over an unpaid… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Diego — — The tax-fighting saga of Joseph Diliberti — Vietnam veteran, Rastafarian, flutist and joyful iconoclast — is heading to a showdown: His hilly, brushy three-acre spread deep in the backcountry is set to be sold for back taxes and penalties.

But like so much of the Diliberti story, there are few, if any, historical or legal precedents to suggest what will happen next.

Audio slideshow: Former Marine does it his way

What started out in 2004 as a $27,000 bill for weed abatement has ballooned — with penalties and other charges — to $69,322, far beyond the financial means of Diliberti, a former Marine who lives on a disability pension from his war injuries.

Diliberti refused to pay a bill from a contractor hired by the local fire district to remove combustible vegetation in the fire-prone region.

He was fishing in Baja California when the weed-choppers arrived. He says the plants were native chaparral and thus not a fire hazard. He won the backing of the Escondido-based California Chaparral Institute.

The San Diego Rural Fire Protection District has proved unmovable. A lawsuit by Diliberti and letters from his supporters to the Board of Supervisors were to no avail.

Because he refused to pay the weed bill, Diliberti was not allowed to pay his property taxes.

Now, the land east of El Cajon is among those properties to be sold by San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector Dan McAllister at the annual tax auction March 18 — with a minimum bid of $72,000.

Offers by McAllister to set up a payment plan for Diliberti were rebuffed.

"I don't compromise!" Diliberti shouted at the fire board in an emotional meeting last summer. "Either you get rid of that bill or you get rid of me!"

In a weak real estate market, it may be difficult to find a buyer for property so remote and without running water, sewage hookups or telephone service. What happens next is unclear.

McAllister said he has no plans to evict Diliberti. "That's not what we do," he said.

Still, by law, McAllister is required to collect back taxes and governmental liens from the Diliberti property. If it isn't sold, it could be put on the list for the next sale in May. And if it doesn't sell then, could Diliberti go on living there, year after year, as long as no one buys the property?

"In nine years in this office, I've never had anything like this," McAllister said. "I'm going to have to seek [legal] counsel."

Backcountry neighbors are split on Diliberti's plight.

Some see him as a champion of their pioneer, anti-government ethos. Others see him as a dangerous scofflaw; the weed abatement was the result of a neighbor's complaint to the fire district.

"It's a shame it had to come to this," said David Nissen, the fire district's division chief. "All the governmental entities have gone the extra mile to work with Mr. Diliberti, but he wouldn't have it."

That isn't how Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, sees it. He's carried his message in favor of Diliberti to San Diego media and the state Legislature.

He believes Diliberti was victimized by an overzealous private contractor — whose contract was later terminated by the fire board — and by government officials unwilling to admit a mistake was made in cutting down natural vegetation that is drought- and fire-resistant.

"This experience has really had a negative impact on my optimism about the ability of common citizens to help their government do the right thing," Halsey said.

It seems doubtful Diliberti will attend the auction. He has ignored governmental notices sent to his property; he's boycotted several fire board hearings.

In 2006, Diliberti pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making harassing phone calls to an ex-girlfriend. He received three years' probation.

He spends much of his time in a treehouse he built in a huge California live oak. He has a sweat lodge for spiritual cleansing and lives in harmony with the frogs, rattlesnakes, raccoons and birds that inhabit his property. Family members — he has five daughters — visit occasionally.

He moved to the rural community of Dehesa in 1979, using money from his work as a building contractor to buy some property. He quotes Thoreau on the need to simplify one's life.

Like other Rastafarian followers of the late Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, the Brooklyn-born Diliberti says he is unfazed by government rules.

"A true Rasta man doesn't worry about those things," he said.

Audio slideshow: Former Marine does it his way

tony.perry@latimes.com

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