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San Diego County fire board may sell property of Marine-turned-Rastafarian over tax lien

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Tony Perry, LA Times

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.

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.

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.

LA Times

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