In the northernmost reaches of California's Ventura County, a two-lane rural road called Highway 33 runs into the rugged and mostly undeveloped Transverse Mountain Range. Though it's mostly raw wilderness, a few businesses catering to adventurous explorers have long existed there, some for more than a century.
But now the local government is shutting those businesses down, one by one, using arcane zoning and building-code laws to get the job done.
"If there isn't someone complaining, and there isn't really a serious public health and safety issue, why do they spend so much of their time pursuing these kinds of cases?" asks Lynne Jensen, executive director of the Ventura County Coalition of Labor and Business (COLAB).
Tom Wolf owns the Pine Mountain Inn, a restaurant that's been serving biker groups and local community organizations since the 1930s. Wolf temporarily had to shut the doors when he suffered a heart attack in 2002, and he was never able to reopen when the county informed him that his property had been rezoned as an "Open Space" back in the 1980s without his knowledge.
"[The county] wanted everybody out of here," says Wolf. "And they wanted a complete open space with nothing but deer and frogs... and no people."
No matter how hard Wolf tried to comply with the ever-changing codes, the county just wouldn't relent, at one time even ordering him to remove a chicken coop that had never actually existed on the property.
Wolf isn't alone, says Jensen. Several other small businesses along Highway 33 have been hit by multiple county agencies for no apparent reason.
"They had every department hit us with violations to make sure that they shut us down," says April Hope, who, along with her husband Bob, owns a bed and breakfast called The Wheel, which has existed in the area since the 1890s.
Since the Hopes purchased The Wheel in early 2000, they've never been able to open it to the public. While officials from the county supervisor's office and the planning department refused to speak with ReasonTV for this story, Jensen says that the county is using code enforcement to drive these businesses off the land without compensation.
"This rezoning is really a way to get around eminent domain, because eminent domain means you give up your entire property. And here, you only give up part of your rights," says Jensen.
Invoking eminent domain to seize private property would not only require the county to compensate landowners, but also to demonstrate that the taking served a "public use."
"They have been very successful in taking people's property in a number of different ways without compensation as long as they don't take ownership of it," says Jensen.
Written and Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Alex Manning, Tracy Oppenheimer, and Weissmueller.
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