Mount Shasta Vista Thru Time
One-time recreational development's frustrating
half-century effort to evolve into a community
Mount Shasta Vista Thru Time
One-time recreational development's frustrating
half-century effort to evolve into a community
by Stuart Ward
Last revised September 23, 2022
Note: this six-part article has nothing to do with the All Things Stewart Mineral Springs website it's under. It's about writer's longtime home front, 20 miles from the Springs by Pluto Caves,
and needed a home, is all.
Shorter versions of parts 1, 2 and 3 first published
in Mt. Shasta Herald on September 22 and 29, 2021
* * *
The once sleepy, 50 year-old backwoods subdivision of Mount Shasta Vista underwent a radical sea change in 2015, as the failed community that ages before jumped down the rabbit hole suddenly found new depths as an illicit-grow haven. The following insider retrospective explores where the place came from from and hopes to explain why it, well, went to pot...on so many levels. It blends a pre-2015 crazy-quilt of jumping-timeline history with personal experiences and semi- to well-informed analysis.
Ward , 43-year Vistan, once served as a board member, and he co-started and -edited Mount Shasta Vista's ephemeral official website from 2012 to 2014.
"...the past is never truly past...it is always tugging up both
its treasures and its tragedies and carrying them insistently into the future."
- Margaret Renkl
Wilderness condo, anyone?
The rustic wooden archway spanning the main entrance at Juniper Drive bore the words “Mt. Shasta Vista” in hand-scrolled, unfinished wood lettering. Surrounded by inviting trees on either side, visitors driving under it might've felt as if they were maybe entering some enchanted rustic realm.
Sign and trees, now both long gone, imparted a certain grace to the entrance of the rural development begun in the mid 1960s. One felt the love and attention going into its creation. The touch showed how earliest property owners -- then only visiting summers from far away -- held a deep affection for their new-found vacation lands secreted away in the high desert foothills below Mount Shasta's northwestern slope.
In time, the place would struggle to segue from its simple recreational land beginnings into an actual, thinly spread rural residential community. This despite a serious lack of infrastructure city dwellers took for granted and county ordinances required. The egregious lack kept it from ever successfully making the change, instead becoming a limbo land, hopeless mix of code-approved residences that had supplied their own infrastructure needs and 'unauthorized' shelters that were never blessed by the county.
That the shared vacation lands initially hadn't any formal aspirations to become something more was reflected in its simple CC&Rs and in association status: it was a POA, or Property Owners Association; not an HOA, or Home Owners Association.
It was simply an exclusive Good Sam’s Club in the boonies, offering weary city dwellers turnkey wilderness condos, so to speak.
No water, no electricity, no sewage, no gas lines, no paved roads, no community center, no parks, no playgrounds...no nothing except lots of lots -- and a labyrinthine, 66-mile network of modest, posted cinder roads to access them all.
Called 'ranch roads' by the developer, they were fragile, modest affairs, built up of loose rock substrate over often deep sandy soil, with a local, volcanic red cinder gravel topping. They were never designed to withstand regular heavy loads or frequent or fast traffic. A 15 miles-per-hour speed limit was set to help preserve them -- plus keep the backwoods' relaxed, tranquil atmosphere intact, much faster traffic disrupting it. Ongoing maintenance was covered by an annual mandatory-membership property assessment, informally called road dues.
The realm, situated a few miles uphill from Lake Shastina and off county road A-12, was some fifteen miles out from both Weed and Grenada. On the countless parcels far from the blacktop, it could feel more like fifty for the profound quietude. Mount Shasta Vista consisted of 1,640 parcels averaging 2-½ acres each, flung over seven square miles of mostly juniper trees and sagebrush with a scattering of tall pine. It spanned nearly six miles between furthest points.
The fledgling development flanked national forest land on several borders. The square-mile sections were platted in two giant clumps separated by a mile of Bureau of Land Management land, county highway A-12 between the second, smaller clump near Pluto Caves and Sheep Rock.
As often happened in rural subdivisions, developers conjured up some whimsical imagery to tickle the fancy of potential vacation land buyers. Roads often bore evocative names like Lost Mine Road, Silver Lode and Happy Lane. One perhaps harked back to a classic movie line: Rosebud Lane. One was humorous: Frankie Lane. A few were named after saints, as in St. George Drive and St. Mary Road, perhaps giving the development the air of being some unlikely sprawling Catholic camp retreat compound.
Born amid controversy,
place became problem child
The place gave birth November 3, 1965, the brainstorm of Los Angeles area developer George Collins on land he purchased from the pioneering Martin family, who'd long laid claim to much of the area. Longtime locals had grazed livestock on the lands and the region had been deemed among the best hunting in the county for over a century. The story went that when one family member sold the vast acreage to Collins, he hadn't gotten permission from the rest; they were more than a bit ticked.
Locals grumbled too, upset their informal rustic backwoods haven was suddenly closed off just so a bunch of vacationing city folk could lollygag about in their shiny Airstreams.
Add to this extreme displeasure the county board of supervisors almost denying greenlighting its formation, for lack of water and sometimes rocky land that wouldn't easily support conventional septic systems should owners decide to live on properties, and the contentious climate snowballed.
Then, a few years in, after the first few dozen adventurous owners smitten with the place as a nice one to retire in settled the land and laid down roots -- each having dutifully drilled a well, extended electrical lines (thus supplying their own infrastructure needs) and built fully to code -- people began moving in on the cheap.
As these later waves of less ambitious, often far less solvent, many newcomers ignored legal residency requirements, the snowball of contention gained even greater momentum. In time it grew to monstrous proportions. It appeared an unstoppable negative force claimed the realm.
Eventually, between code-compliant residents on the warpath over 'squatter' neighbors moving in, rebellious would-be residents taking their heat and kicking back, disillusioned absentee parcel holders stuck with lots they soon couldn't use or sell, put-upon county authorities in time giving up enforcing health and building codes, and surrounding community viewing the place's inhabitants through distorted fun-house mirrors, the place never had...well, a snowball's chance in hell.
Controversy came to infect the rustic realm like an incurable disease. Contentious energies hovered over otherwise serene high desert woodlands like so many brooding storm clouds forever threatening to rain on the parade of all, legal and non-compliant alike.
No matter how many eventual residents dedicated themselves to try turning things around over time, it seemed the place could never be anything but a stalled-out recreational development bearing vague, chimerical hopes of growing into something more -- legitimately, at least. Code compliant residents were certain it was all the parcel holders moving in and ignoring health and building regulations that ruined the place's chances of ever becoming your normal, functioning, structured rural community.
Down the rabbit hole
It appeared non-compliant dwellers would jump down the rabbit hole into a fantasy land the place could foster in the headspaces of many. They'd simply ignore the rants of the Red Queen (i.e. the powerless property owners' board) screaming, "Build to code or off with their heads!" as impotent ravings.
Spiraling vortex energies emanating from the land and the mountain itself might've aided and abetted such mundane-reality ignoring inclinations that so infuriated the code compliant dwellers.
So, despite what appeared an auspicious start as a popular cooperative vacation land, in time the place became little more than a failed recreational development with frustrated, wayward aspirations to evolve somehow.
When the handful of legal residents early on led the place's transition from camp ground to de facto rural residential area, things had appeared promising indeed. But with the flood of non-compliant dwellers pouring in, the place seemed to totally lose its bearings. It would straggle on, a perpetually contrary, infrastructure-starved realm forever at odds with itself, the larger community and local government alike.
Snared between worlds as it was, frozen in time and nursing a serious identity crisis, it appeared destined to never find a place in the sun.
Emboldened by realm's remoteness
Despite the host of initial handicaps, beyond the disinterested speculators hoping to make a fast buck and those content to just camp on their parcels now and then, in time the development attracted plenty of land-hungry people looking for affordable property to call home yet weren't too concerned about conforming to building codes.
Succeeding waves of new arrivals were emboldened by the place's remoteness; its broken original purpose that caused enough confusion and uncertainty to take advantage of the situation; and the eventual thin residential code enforcement by the county, despite the code compliant screaming bloody murder.
Casual builders, labeled "code violators", moved in on the cheap with a determined, "What's the big deal? I'm just building a shelter for myself out in the middle of nowhere" frame of mind. Later, others, knowing of the place's increasingly spotty code enforcement, moved in with a bold, scofflaw, "Hee, hee, what are you goin' to do about it?" attitude.
Non-code construction would become so epidemic, it was almost as if the place had time-warped back to the pioneer era and wild west when great plains settlers built primitive earth-sheltered soddies and forest settlers fashioned their simple log abodes. As if late in the twentieth century it had become a new frontier far removed from modern times and all its spirit-stifling regulations.
Many, feeling light years away from any responsive law enforcement, over time tried to become a law unto themselves.
Buy in Haste
Impulsive first buyers likely were at best only vaguely aware of the place's sundry initial handicaps and liabilities, any number of which had, no doubt, turned off your more discerning land shopper. They were giddy over the prospect of getting such a generous-sized piece of land in a popular recreational region for a song. The parcels proved so irresistible, any felt need for due diligence flew out the window; parcels were snapped up like bargain basement steals. Before the place's disheartening realities finally sank into the grey matter, new owners spun excited dreams and schemes of how they'd live here and enjoy the land on extended retreats.
It appeared many, given the choice rustic location and dirt cheap price, were willing to make generous allowances for the almost total absence of infrastructure, a given for any standard community. While fine for camping and retreat use, it was courting disaster whenever a would-be resident, lacking the resources or interest in creating a place that met the living standard threshold of wealthier society, decided to roll the dice. Determined to live on their property, their attitude over time essentially became, "Hey, it's my land, I 'm free to live on it however I choose; this was still America last time I checked. Back off."
Regret at leisure
Over time, an intense love-hate buyer relationship with the water-shy parcels appeared to emerge among the sea of parcel holders: "Buy in haste, regret at leisure." It was a pattern destined to be repeated by thousands of purchasers over time. The subtle magic and simplicity of the tranquil backwoods, feeling worlds away from over-wound city living as it did, grabbed people and blinded them to more worldly concern -- until out of the blue it bit them on the ass.
In fairness to the developer, parcels were initially touted ONLY as private camp lands. Places of simple retreat for weary city dwellers wanting to rough it in nature for a while and unwind. The developer maybe sensed he needn't invest any more time, money or effort into the project than he did, creating simple wilderness condos, to move the lots. If so, he was right. It appeared enthusiasm over the chance to spend summers amid the solitude of one's own quite affordable piece of Californian high desert woodlands, magnificent Mt. Shasta looking over the scene big as life, was so contagious that, with the help of a little sizzling ad copy, the lots practically sold themselves.
No infrastructure besides a reliable nearby water source was really needed for city-fleeing owners psyched at the prospect of roughing it in the boonies, getting back to basics, some making like bears in the woods, on their very own bit of wilderness. One had the convenience and luxury of camping on their own secluded land for free up to 30 days a year rather than pay someone daily to camp, others maybe setting up twenty feet away with a passel of squalling kids. A mini-movement was afoot -- many coming from the Los Angeles region, also from the Bay Area and Central Valley -- to pitch tents and roll in travel trailers to the Vista's inviting backwoods.
The terrain was high desert woodlands. Low precipitation and hot summers. Plenty of junipers trees and a few pines provided welcome shade. And the mountain’s spectacular northern, glacier-clad side did wonders helping keep one cooler psychologically just by gazing on its chilled splendor.
"Bye 'n' bye" came fast
Significantly, it seemed developer Collins just couldn't resist casually throwing out the idea of the development maybe being a nice place to retire at "bye 'n' bye." He relayed this notion in the official Vista newsletter that was sent to every member and avidly read by excited new owners of the charmingly low-key wilderness lands, tucked away at the central top of the state, Mount Shasta serving as regal natural crown of the Golden State.
Since practically next door Lake Shastina sprang up a couple years later, initially as a second home community, it assured that bye 'n' bye wouldn’t be long at all. It gave a good handful of so-minded Vistan land holders strong impetus to follow suit, but with a twist: building structures not as second residences but, like Collins suggested, retirement homes.
Of course it'd be on each would-be resident to pay to get power lines extended to the lot (or kick into the power fund, covered later), drill an approved well and install a proper septic system before the county would ever deign to issue a home building permit, then only on approval of submitted detailed building plans that met rigid health and building standards.
These included permanent foundation, conventional framing methods, minimum size, electrification, insulation, full kitchen facility and indoor plumbing. Any unconventional design required hiring a qualified engineer to certify submitted plans were structurally sound. Most owner-builders wouldn't even move onto their property until their house was completed and given the county blessing by being signed off after a final inspection and thus 'green-tagged'.
While building codes had been around in the U.S. since 1915, enforcement no doubt tended to be laxer in rural areas a long while. Focus instead was on crowded cities and structures built by contractors who'd never live in their creations. Out in the country, property owners could leisurely build their own cabins and cottages to suit themselves, the finished design maybe only emerging half-way through. But with bureaucratic regulations having a tendency to insist being adopted by more and more over time, eventually authorities insisted on complex code 'guidelines' and pricey requirements being followed even in the furthest reaches of sparsely populated Siskiyou County.
Priced to move
Parcels were priced to move -- writer remembers reading how they went for between $750. and $975. depending on parcel size (each between 2.2 and 3.5 acres), location and features. There was relatively low overhead -- no steep infrastructure costs beyond putting in and maintaining red cinder roads (many of which were traced over preexisting logging and hunting roads); making entrance signs; and planting short 4X4 inch wooden road-sign posts with stenciled lettering that were soon camouflaged by fast-growing sagebrush.
No doubt all kinds of people bought the lots for all kinds of reasons. But countless parcels were snapped up in pure speculation: "Hey, they're not making any more land." Many such buyers would never camp on them, some maybe never even see them. Though a fair number appeared psyched at the prospect of actually enjoying their private campground, maybe seeing them as something to leave the grand kids, others -- arguably the overwhelming majority -- were simply betting on the development’s growth. They anticipated making out like bandits if and when the place grew to become something like, say, some giant KOA camp village loaded with amenities and services.
That, or as instead happened, it segued into a de facto rural community...one that might've actually succeeded, driving parcel prices sky high, had every would-be resident taken on the responsibility of getting their own infrastructure needs met and building to code.
But that was something only people flush with cash or a willingness and eligibility to take on debt could afford. Understandably, it didn't find approval among the less solvent who were naturally also attracted to the land at such affordable costs; they often had only enough money to buy the land on easy terms and drag in an old mobile home or trailer or throw up a makeshift shelter and call it good enough.
It seemed cheap land and cheap shelters often go together.
Investors didn't realize this at the time. Once hearing about the first batch of code-conforming homes springing up and Collins always talking up a rosy future for the place, they had perhaps not unreasonably assumed everyone else would likewise build to code.
They waited in keen anticipation for parcel values to take off.*
* They’d only have to wait a half century. Parcel values finally went through the roof in 2015. Values of unimproved lots skyrocketed from $5,000 to over $150,000 by 2021 for reasons entirely unrelated to infrastructure build-up, still almost nil. The startling phenomenon seemed in keeping with the extreme boom-bust nature of the place that -- due to factors beyond the scope of this writing -- caused unimproved lot prices to plummet back down by 2022, with lots finding few takers at $12,000 as of September, 2022 ("Price reduced $80,000"). Place's peculiar boom-bust nature could perhaps be compared to a bone-dry desert that got a brief flash flood every decade or two, when a deluge of land-hungry people or cagey speculators descended on the region.
Every lot was snapped up inside of 18 months. Fact belies a popular myth that the developer was stuck with parcels nobody wanted. It was in fact the hundreds of subsequent absentee owners and those they sold them to who'd become saddled with them.
No one felt stuck with them during the momentous first years. Vacationers -- and soon, residents -- saw in the sprawling rural development something of a backwoods paradise.
The Vista Thru Time
Continuing saga of a wayward development
In one important regard the Vista was different from other rural subdivisions in the region forming about the same time: Lake Shastina (3,200 lots, started in 1968); McCloud area’s Shasta Forest (791 lots, launched in 1966); and possibly Hornbrook region’s KRCE (2,050 lots, founded in 1967).
The Vista never had a master plan for community development baked into its CC&Rs (Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions), essential for providing an avenue for building out with some rhyme and reason, guardrails to steer the development in an agreed-on direction by founders, subsequent board members and other involved owners.
With so many parcel owners absentee, seldom if ever visiting, it appeared the many were indeed speculating on the anticipated actions of the few -- those who actually vacationed at the place and were inclined to pitch in to try to improve it. The former would sit back and let things progress and at some point cash in, making a nice chunk of change for their troubles.
Holders of course were destined to lose heart in droves not long after the one brief spurt of initial development growth occurred. Owners had pulled together to establish an informal community well for camping visitors and well-less home builders; strung up a few power lines to serve the first few dozen parcel holders who settled in and built to code (both addressed later); and pulled in a long mobile in which to hold required monthly board meetings.
Once building of the first few legally permitted residences began, it forever shifted the essential nature of the place: from shared camp lands to embryonic community. Interest in further enjoying parcels for camping no doubt faded fast; pitching one's tent within full view of someone's home wouldn't prove very enticing.
Now neither fish nor fowl, the realm's identity and function became hopelessly muddled. Without overhauling the CC&Rs and every would-be resident toeing the line to meet county health and building codes to assure the place grew as a regular community, it stood at one big impasse.
Soon enough the realm found itself between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Interest in the wayward development flatlined for decades. Since it had outgrown its original use intent but stalled trying to segue into anything more to the ways of conventional-lifestyle thinking, market values of the lots barely kept up with inflation.
The place became an unmanageable white elephant, often more trouble than it was worth trying to sell in the eyes of the region's realtors.
Possibly not unlike other failed rural subdivisions that California developers hatched over time, the arrested rec-land became the place time forgot -- happily for the actual few residents who relished the rich solitude, but sadly for the sea of speculators who found it hard to impossible to sell holdings that now had nothing more going for them to entice would-be buyers than cheap land that was no longer desirable for camping yet required a huge outlay if wanting to stay more than 30 days a year and still be legal...not without being made to feel like squatters on their own land, getting the bum's rush by spitting-nails-mad, code-compliant neighbors forever on the warpath.
It didn't help matters any that the place had gained a reputation for being 'difficult.'
"Just a matter of time"
Many parcel owners doggedly held onto their apparent boondoggle even so. They doubled down, determined not to lose their shirts. Possibly in denial, they just couldn't believe that the parcels wouldn't become more valuable some day. After ages, finally convinced the place appeared to have near zero chance of ever straightening out and evolving into a legitimate community, many at last bit the bullet. They scrambled to unload the clunkers.
Raw parcels flooded the market.
There were few takers, even at the modest $1,200 to $1,500. asking price. Those who eventually did take them off their hands were often themselves disinterested professional investors, making little side bets on the place's future by parking a bit of extra cash in them a while, or amateur investors similarly infected with the latest fitful round of speculation fever.
However, for those actually interested in moving onto the lots like modern day pioneers, perhaps not too concerned about ever becoming legal in the eyes of the powers that be, the parcels were pure catnip. Prices were so ridiculously low compared to similar regional developments that such people were eager to use the land to the hilt for whatever it was worth and hope for the best. They wouldn't be too disappointed if things didn't work out. It seemed an easy come, easy go kind of land.
The mirage of the Mt. Shasta wonderland, obviously undervalued and under-exploited, proved irresistible. It would seduce speculators and would-be residents alike, if for very different reasons. And the pattern continued.
Fitful cycles of short-lived buying mania followed by long-term flat-lining of any interest whatsoever became the eternal Vista dance. After long decades, hundreds of raw parcels were still vacant, result of ephemeral illusions followed by abandoned hopes, often involving a long succession of briefly enthusiastic owners and casual small investors.
The woebegone development spun round and round on its own short-boom-long-bust merry-go-round, riders reaching out for the elusive golden ring of either easy country living or fast profit while realtors, trying to make their nut moving less prestigious, low-end properties, supplied the calliope's shrill, hypnotic melody.
It was this overshadowing speculative force -- along with water scarcity, volcanic land often too rocky or steep for conventional septic systems, plus all the other mentioned factors -- that frustrated even the most determined efforts of the more civic minded among the sparse population to ever move it forward onto some semblance of solid footing to become a standard community -- or even the faintest facsimile thereof.
Nickel and dimed
Meanwhile, those stuck with now largely unsaleable parcels were loathe to invest another cent in the place. That is, not beyond the mandatory association's recurring property assessment, mostly covering road maintenance, and county property taxes. As it stood, the former were often paid only after much kicking and screaming, amid whines of "I don't even live there to drive on the roads; why should I have to pay for their upkeep?"
Even though the assessment was far less than other regional rural subdivisions -- when the writer arrived in the late '70s, it was only about $20. a year; by 2021 it had grown to $219. -- they felt nickel-and-dimed to death anyhow. Shook down for the latest assessment each fall as they were, one imagines they felt something like mobile home owners in trailer parks, structures theirs but forever having to pay rent on the space they perched on lest they be grabbed in foreclosure.
Perhaps predictably, due to the many absentee owners' growing disenchantment with the now-arrested development ("left for dead" in realtor parlance), the association suffered high rates of late payment and non payment. Especially when the wording on statements got testier over time, key words in large bold letters that defied being ignored, as in PAY WITHIN 30 DAYS TO AVOID SEVERE PENALTY AND FORECLOSURE. Perversely, such exhortations often only seemed to encourage blowing off paying altogether. They're daring me not to pay, huh? Well, maybe I'll just take them up on that; they can have their damn parcel back...worthless piece of crap, why I ever bought it I'll never know...mumble grumble...
As the state-mandated association's functioning was dependent on everyone chipping in each year to cover the place's ongoing operating expenses, it often suffered under a strained budget. As more people moved in and the 66 miles of cinder roads got more wear and tear, the one-man road crew was often unable to maintain all of them -- or at least not up the immaculate zen standards as kept in the earlier years, which had made the roads so inviting to mischievous kids to make donuts in on their chainsaw on wheels dirt bikes. Regardless, one good gully-washer of a rainstorm could wash away cinder topping and cut hazardous mini canyons on hillside roads even if groomed the day before.
This is turn caused owners to gripe about having to pay for roads that weren't kept up -- leastwise not theirs, the lion's share going to the most heavily-trafficked. Some sparsely settled regions might not see the road truck for a decade, sometimes only then because a visiting owner to their remote hinterlands had driven hundreds of miles to vacation only to get stuck in deep sand on the home stretch and forced to call a tow truck. Rightly furious, they held the association board's feet to the fire, demanding they cover the bill, which motivated them to bestir themselves and address the woefully neglected stretch of road.
Such problems didn't at all make for happy campers.
This in stark contrast to the first owners visiting who had so thoroughly enjoyed the lands. It maybe helped that it had been during the extraordinary late '60s, when waves of spirit-infused euphoria could wash over one even if their drug of choice was only aspirin.
Raise high the roof beam, carpenters
Many Vista lots were fairly pristine. Some had ancient stumps from lumberman Abner Weed’s harvesting the area’s mature pines in the early nineteenth century. And the bulldozing needed to make many stretches of roads of course marred the land. (KRCE was born similarly, recycling tree-harvested lands into rec lots to solitude-hungry city folk.)
That aside, many parcels could feel fairly enchanted to those who appreciated the land's subtle beauty and didn't need towering trees and rippling creeks to embrace nature. The land had inviting groves of mature junipers, riots of colorful wildflowers in spring and early summer, occasional stands of pines and dramatic rock outcroppings mountain lions once perched on. All lent select areas something of a rarefied, dreamy atmosphere, a place where time seemed to stand still.
Fresh high-desert air, balmy sunshine, profound quietude and a giddy sense of freedom being in wild country combined to inspire early repeat vacationers to visit from afar. Enough to eventually inspire some to chuck city life and retire here...simply and affordably. After living on tiny, nature-starved city lots so long, they'd suddenly be able to luxuriate in the bounty of woodlands and country solitude year round. It'd be a shangri-la for nature-loving retirees.
Legend had it that earliest comers in constructing their cabins and homes in the late sixties -- one on Heinzelman Drive, another on White Drive -- hadn't even needed a building permit. If true, this maybe energetically set a precedent for subsequent owner-builders feeling they needed only their own permission to build, and the building department then forever playing catch-up, saying in effect, "Hey, you do need a permit now...hey, we really mean it."
No more sketchy subdivisions
Between 1970 and 1972, California passed a flurry of landmark regulations for subdivision formation. “...[A] new attitude of comprehensive planning and environmental protection emerged,” noted realty attorney James Longtin. The Vista had barely gotten in under the wire before vast regulatory changes made it impossible to any longer spin out such bare-bones, quick-buck rural developments.
From then on, developers would be required to make legally binding commitments to provide all basic infrastructure needs...plus, over time, they or the association spring for public improvements like parks, playgrounds and community centers. It seemed our place, though grandfathered in under the earlier, worlds more lax requirements, would come to feel intense pressure from the county -- in turn under the gun of the state -- whenever anyone wanted to actually build an approved shelter in the one-time camp land. Would-be homesteaders had to jump through all kinds of complicated, time-consuming, expensive bureaucratic hoops to earn the right to live on their secluded lands, the first and perhaps most daunting being, before doing anything else, bringing in an approved well.
Who’d want to live in the middle of nowhere, anyhow?
Maybe county officials had crossed their fingers, hoping there'd never be people who for some strange reason actually wanted to live on their raw, bone-dry lots out in the middle of nowhere. Each new building permit okayed would mean several long, time-consuming drives out to inspect and sign off numerous completion stages. They had better things to do.
Any community vision beyond the usual volunteer fire department and such just didn’t seem to go with dirt-cheap lots and near-zero infrastructure. One paid dearly for those added features in your more-developed subdivisions -- paved roads, electricity, water, sewage, security, fire department. When you bought land cheap, expectations were low to nonexistent.
Except of course for Vista’s starry-eyed pioneers. They'd been duly smitten by the region’s charm, enough to invest their fortunes and hopes of a future of peaceful domestic tranquility, game to work together to try forging a rustic hideaway retirement community, far from the madding crowd. As a song lyric went, they were “...going where the living is easy and the people are kind."
Kind of something, anyhow.
The Vista Thru Time
Continuing saga of the wayward development's first 50 years
"Welcome all!" vs. "Up the drawbridge!"
Many felt blessed. Swept up in the joy of service and the grand pioneering adventure of it all living in the bosom of nature, they were only all too glad to share their good fortune with the newest arrivals, like writer, even if nowhere near as solvent. They offered cheerful assistance whenever and however they could, eager to see their fledgling backwoods community grow and flourish. Sometimes second-generation residence owners, they hadn't experienced the ordeal of complying with onerous health and building codes and so were a bit more relaxed and live-and-let-live on such matters with newcomers. They were just happy for new neighbors populating the quasi wilderness.
Not so others; they were just a tad less egalitarian. They wanted to pull up the drawbridge, post haste. They'd erect snarly warning signs everywhere to try to keep the riff-raff out. They’d majorly bank on county residential-code enforcers to protect their rural outpost from getting spoiled by un-simpatico newcomers moving into their would-be backwoods village on the cheap. Especially revved-up younger folks of modest means -- most especially those pot-smoking hippie and biker types, thought forever left behind in the cities.
Such buyers were worlds away from ever willingly embracing the founders' convention-locked, dutifully law-abiding and retiring yet controlling ways.
Such founders were duly alarmed how many property owners began moving onto raw parcels with tent or trailer, hanging their hats and figuring they were home. Many of the latter didn't seem to care what existing residents might think about their sudden presence or the county ordinances they were so flagrantly flouting. It seemed that being out in the middle of nowhere on their own secluded land often dulled one's perception of needing to conform to any such convoluted claptrap as city-centric health and building codes.
When they were rudely reminded by barking signs and unpleasant confrontations, it did little to make them want to conform, even if they could. Many of the first residents seemed so conservative, so set in their ways in trying to maintain their peculiar La-la-land country club-ish, strict law-and-order atmosphere, it naturally invited your more free-minded land buyers to scope the over-wound scene and say screw 'em.
So it came to pass that the first-comers -- those who'd so diligently dotted every I and crossed every T, making substantial investments in time and money and sweat equity -- would start freaking out.
Their ephemeral safe-haven rural community was starting to turn into its own madding crowd.
Home in the country
The first modern-day settlers had established themselves in the late 1960s. By the early 1970s, a sprinkling of about thirty year-round residents dotted the vast landscape. Momentum growing, various and sundry began leaping at the chance to make the Vista’s affordable boonies their home too. It appeared the notion of not just visiting but actually living in nature was catching on. “Head for the hills, brothers!” was the clarion call as more and more city-weary souls joined a burgeoning back-to-the-land movement.
But without a master plan, new residents were winging it, flying blind, as the land experienced fitful bursts of shelter construction, sounds of hammering and whining circular saws echoing across the land. Writer guesstimates that by the mid seventies maybe some sixty to eighty residences of varying degrees of ambition and code compliance had cropped up among the junipers and sage. The place was spontaneously evolving, everyone playing it by ear in their merry, mad scramble to get their own rustic abodes established.
It's unknown if some of the heavily-invested first residents had early on ever given thought to try getting the CC&Rs extensively revised by a law firm (if indeed it was even possible; writer's no lawyer). This would've supported a more orderly growth into a standard community, lending weight to the insistence each owner wanting to live here first drilled a well (or shared one with adjacent resident(s)), pay to have power lines extended, and installed an approved septic system. It would've assured the place of finding a proper footing, becoming a 'respectable', law-abiding community.
A moot point, though. With 98% of the property owners absent, many starting to nurse buyer remorse and wanting to unload the clunkers, they'd have realized they could never muster the needed critical level of support to tackle such a monumental change. And heck, they were retirees anyhow; their days of heavy lifting were done once their homes were finished.
A more cynical view might be that some of the founders realized that building their homes amid a sea of raw vacation lands might invite certain problems down the road but didn't give a hoot. They had theirs for what remained of their time on earth, earned for having diligently conformed to all legal residency requirements, and so bogarted their one-time shangri-la to the hilt; the the chips fall where they may.
In any event, the emerging neither-this-nor-that place was essentially left a blank canvas. It was painted on and painted over and painted over again by whatever the latest in an ever-changing succession of aggregate residents wanted the Vista to become (if anything). Each among the more dominant and involved of current inhabitants tried advancing their own living standards and notions for what the place should become and convince others it was a good thing. It was perhaps not unlike excited children building sandcastles on the seashore before the high tide rushed in and erased their ambitious efforts. Then new castles were built by others, likewise unmindful of the next high tide. Or like creating on an Etch-a-Sketch, the most intricate designs shaken away back to a blank slate of changing populations with a flick of the wrist.
While building efforts ostensibly fell within the bounds of county and state laws -- ordinances and codes the development was legally obliged to conform to as conditions for having been greenlighted -- these were never easy to enforce by the county's undermanned staff tasked with such oversight. A tiny dwelling amid the sprawling, 66-mile labyrinth of private unpaved roads, out in the middle of nowhere, was not easy to track...or even be aware of existing, short of pouring over satellite photos or a livid code-compliant neighbor burning up the phone lines.
With the heady sense of freedom living in such secluded back-country enclave lent newly rusticating dwellers -- often no one else living within a quarter mile or more -- something of an libertarian, even anarchistic, spirit emerged. At least among the more rebellious, frugal-living baby boomer crowd that, fast on the wings of earlier waves, felt pulled to the mountain like a magnet. They quickly discovered plenty of the Vista’s dirt-cheap parcels for sale in the sleepy buyer's market; more and more property holders had tried cutting their losses and shake free of what turned out to be the biggest boondoggle they'd ever had the sorry misfortune to get mixed up in.
Doing one's own thing
Such a free-wheeling spirit might’ve been fine had the place from the start a solid foundation of infrastructure support and appropriate CC&Rs. But it didn't. Once recreational use faded and the disparate crowd at cross purposes poured in -- different ages, headspaces, lifestyles, incomes, awareness levels, land-use intents, varied respect for the rule of law -- it became all but impossible to establish any common ground to do much of anything. The unwillingness of so many to build to code no doubt became the deal breaker. It sparked an ongoing pitched battle between code compliant and code ignorers. The former viewed the latter as illegal residents who deserved the bum's rush; the latter viewed the former as uptight power trippers with too much money that needed to chill.
A place built on such a shaky footing, lacking water and supporting CC&Rs, with growing scofflaw, 'what building code?' attitudes, a place rife with contentious energies baked into its very inception...these all but guaranteed that whatever elusive hopes more civic minded property holders held to salvage the sorry situation were doomed six ways to Sunday.
The boring board
Reflecting the place's many woes was the association members' elected board. Its two-year members, all living in approved structures -- were shocked and outraged to see their backwoods haven slipping away. Newcomers clearly didn't appreciate or respect what they'd so painstakingly tried to create. At least not enough to follow suit and build to code, too.
Reacting to the intolerable situation, they were infuriated beyond measure. Going hell for leather, they'd create a tragic legacy of scorched-earth overreach and hardball actions to try to bust anyone and everyone not code-compliant, alienating everyone who hadn't made similar investments to comply. Seething mad, they were on major red alert: there was trouble in River City. For decades they girded their loins and went about with a balls out ruthlessness, trying to halt and reverse the non-compliant trend.
It was a whack-a-mole effort that seldom did much to stem the tide of scofflaw building in the long run.
Perhaps a secondary reason for manning their battle stations, Klaxon horn blasting: being a public-benefit corporation, the Vista board was legally mandated to make a good-faith effort to have all association members abide by all county and state codes, laws and ordinances. They could conceivably be held legally liable for neglecting proper enforcement, board members possibly sued. So their could never be a doubt, they made it crystal clear to county authorities that the board, itself having no legal enforcement powers, was totally dependent on them to make things right again, no matter how long it too or how much work it meant...or it'd be on them.
While each land buyer signed an agreement to follow all legal regulations and ordinances on purchase of the parcel, of course it was buried in the boilerplate sea of legaleeze fine print. In the rush to purchase and pursue dreams of country living, beyond the blatant code breakers were those who would remain blissfully unaware they'd ever agreed to any such thing; they were then duly shocked and outraged when told, sometimes with an intolerant, fire-breathing intensity, how you couldn't do this and don't even think of doing that if you know what's good for you.
It could radicalize one overnight.
Newcomers of more modest means and freer ways only knew they'd snagged their own piece of California; they were psyched to do their own thing and be left the hell alone. Maybe over time they'd connect with a few kindred souls, who'd then tell them things like, "Just ignore the board; hell, everyone does -- it's just a toothless tiger, a bunch of retired, power-freak busybodies with nothing better to do than try telling others how to live. Screw 'em."
The very nature of any more substantial rural subdivision, with its crazy-quilt of lots tucked out in the sticks, often proved problematic by its very nature -- even with supporting infrastructure and CC&Rs. While enabling any so inclined to buy rural land affordably rather than go bust shelling out for, say, a pricey stand-alone 20 or 40 acre parcel and then deal with road access and maintenance themselves, the hidden costs could be steep: having to live and work with a potluck assortment of strangers concentrated together yet isolated from the town and city lifestyle that made the same basic reality feel normal -- if crowded and nature-starved. Hence, many wanting to get away from such a reality.
The fact that people wanted their own land away from others made warming to the reality of so many living on land around them, bound together by the place's legal structure, a bit problematic. A late neighbor once told the writer, "People need to learn to share the fantasy." That is, share the illusion that each actually owned maybe 20 or 40 acres, or at the least had one heck of a buffer zone around their parcels. Otherwise the potential for ceaseless territorial squabbling and rank inconsideration for the rights of others to pursue their own dreams and schemes amid the ensuing wild-frontier climate could ruin it for everyone.
In the case of the Vista, the laundry list of neighborhood grievances often seemed endless. Between barking dogs, roving packs of same, shooting off firearms, blasting stereos, driving too fast and/or recklessly, vandalizing and stealing road signs, burning toxic materials in backyards rather than hauling them to the dump; tree poaching; juvenile dirt bikers roaring around on devices loud as chainsaws, making donuts in the roads and tearing up unfenced, pristine lots of absentee owners; roadside littering and flagrant garbage dumping, letting winds blow one's property detritus to the four corners with zero concern of degrading the environment...there was always something to raise the hackles of dwellers.
In frustration, they made incessant demands on the near-powerless board...and on county authorities so caught up in the swamp of slow bureaucratic procedure that they themselves might also feel powerless to resolve any given problem...or, among the more benumbed and burned out on elected public service, be well versed in the art of doing a fast two-step avoidance dance in response to constituents' constant wail of "Can't you do something?!" (No doubt it wasn't that they didn't care per se as much as the rural county simply not having the resources to effectively enforce its own ordinances.)
In search of simple living
It was almost as if the state, in approving such rural subdivisions, which each county then had to deal with, was conducting some sort of weird social lab experiment: for some obscure reason they wanted to find out how many strangers could live together out in the middle of nowhere and deal with their imposed mandates before it drove them all nuts.
People moved to the country for peace and quiet, to enjoy fresh air and quietude, live more simply and be left alone. They didn't want to deal with any blasted bureaucratic mandates...and so many did their level best to ignore them...even if the downside was possibly enabling a scofflaw air to emerge for any so inclined. (Some might say the word 'subdivision' handicapped any such development from thriving, the very word being, well, divisive.)
Historically, when a settlement was founded by a few and evolved over time, there was an organic process at work. Residents gained a sense of belonging and measure of empowerment and engagement with their slowly evolving creation.
The Vista, in contrast, was founded by a realtor who lived far away and exactly platted into lots before any eventual owners ever set foot on the land. It was his creation, such as it was, commercially motivated and initially created only as shared vacation lands. When it unexpectedly segued into a would-be community, growth was random, lacking the cohesion, self-determination, empowerment, and pride of place that any more naturally evolving community possessed.
The situation was further worsened over time by residents who'd rent their homes from property owners. They had no vested interest -- or say -- in how the place was run, even if wanting to participate and be good neighbors. It was also greatly exacerbated, again, by the disinterested absentee parcel owners that long constituted over 90% of the association. The latter held equal voting rights on any proposal as actual owner-residents who naturally tended to nurture interests in furthering the place along. In contrast, absentee owners and, often, property renters, often tended to join with loner residents who for whatever reasons held zero interest in working together to make civic improvements, plus established parties who already had their social scene wired, thank you, in what clearly became a totally non-integrated community. (No-come-unity might be a more appropriate word to describe the situation.)
Together they'd enthusiastically shoot down a proposal made by then board president Eric Prescott in 1981. He envisioned The Vista building a modest multi-use community center on one of the hundreds of empty lots. Even though it would’ve only involved a modest extra assessment for two years to fund, cost spread thinly among so many parcel owners, and undoubtedly would’ve benefited myriad over time by establishing a greater sense of community, the owner-majority chorused their favorite refrain: Not One Cent More!
Many embraced the persistent illusion that once they bought the land, except for annual property taxes they were home free. So, again, they took strong exception to having to feed a parking meter, as it were, every year for road maintenance on roads they might never drive on lest their property get towed away by the Mt. Shasta Vista Property Owners Association for resale to the next, possibly equally clueless buyer.
Not that there weren't also absentee owners who, despite all, treasured the wild land and nurtured hopes for the place's future. Some no doubt entertained fond notions of moving here someday. Others still enjoyed frequent extended visits on the remaining pleasant retreat properties located away from clusters of established homes and unsightly power lines.
But it seemed the majority -- jaded residents and absentee owners alike -- had grown indifferent to the notion of ever trying to actually improve the place. That is, if it meant another penny on their part. Some doubtless had thought a portion of their annual assessment could go towards funding improvements more community-minded thought needed. But the budget was almost invariably stretched to the breaking point over the high cost of maintaining 66 miles of fragile roadbed. And vandalized and stolen road signs needed frequent replacing. And insurance rates skyrocketed. And thorny legal matters and potential lawsuits requiring an attorney be kept on retainer. And...
...in the 1980s, the association began shelling out for a professional association manager. Things had grown too complicated and time-consuming for volunteer board members alone, most unversed in legal matters, to grasp the intricate procedures for running a development according to Hoyle. Especially after the state legislature in 1985 set up stringent new regulations for subdivisions through its Davis Stirling Act.
Many residents, having low expectations going in, became resigned to there not being any more there there, maybe even relieved. It suited them fine, thank you. Some were maybe just using the place as a temporary perch, planning to move out as soon as something better opened up. The prospect of better organizing the place might've seemed to hold too strong a negative potential for becoming an intrusive force of power-hungry busybodies trying to dictate how others should live on their remote properties.
Many, some of a pronounced unconventional bent the wayward place naturally seemed to attract, had, after all, relocated here to get as far away from over-complicated, peace-eroding bureaucratic forces as possible and still be not too far from town. As a section 13 resident and one-time president of the Siskiyou Arts Council said during a public-radio radio interview, "We live out in the middle of nowhere -- and we love it!"
Those who'd conformed to codes ostensibly had more peace of mind to enjoy their places; but even those who hadn't and were hunkering down under the radar would likewise claim the right to enjoy it, possession being nine-tenths of the law (while clearly thinking the other laws not worth following).
The Vista, undeveloped as it was -- an arrested subdivision eventually with all but unenforceable health and building codes -- must've doubtless struck scofflaws as a promising locale to perch at. It was cheap and remote yet only a half hour from town. They wanted to enjoy simple stand-alone country and not trouble themselves trying to conform to any dratted rules and regulations of how they should enjoy it. So they grudgingly paid the mandatory annual dues and, collective vexed spirits forever hovering over the would-be tranquil lands, it became a popular idle pastime to demonize the ever-intrusive board.
Some cynics felt the entire setup was bogus, probably illegal. Corrupt as hell anyhow, ruining what would've otherwise been a great scene. "Someone oughta sue", "why I ever moved here...", "did you know our manager sells parcels on the side to anyone with ready cash, regardless of obvious, shady intentions?", "this place would be just fine if it weren't for...", ad infinitum.
Of course, gnarly contentious energies weren't always evident, though it often seemed that way. There were pleasant lulls. During more peaceful periods, people got pleasantly laid-back, felt grateful, relishing the region's solitude and unspoiled nature. A tenuous live-and-let-live attitude seemed to prevail, denizens so used to the place being dysfunctional that it seemed normal. There was something about everyone being king or queen of their own regally rustic, wild realm, their own little backwoods hideaway bought for a song. One just had to tune out the joker in the deck.
Domains tucked away along the endless cinder back roads often had so few fellow settlers that dwellers might've imagined their new digs more as pioneer homesteads of yore rather than any dratted modern-day subdivision parcels, subject to a slew of nit-picky rules and regulations. Rules enforced by board members who, in turn under pressure from the county and state, could run amok with seething frustration, foaming at the mouth fury...in a word, Intolerance.
And so, appearing as it did that one couldn't do diddly-squat without getting the board's blessing but grow old waiting for it, and it often harboring the pronounced, irascible, no-can-do spirit it did, most residents were resigned to tuning it out and just doing their own thing. Some suspected anyone who tried to better the quasi community, assuming they surely hid some less than kindly intentions guaranteed to bring misery on them.
Despite a teeth-gnashing board hellbent on throwing its weight around in crazed outrage health and building codes weren't being better enforced, the remote circumstances tended to foster the happy illusion one could do whatever they wanted on their land. No uptight board, lacking legal fining power and no longer getting dependable county enforcement response, could stop them. Private-property rights were sacrosanct, after all. Scofflaw dwellers blocked out being under any rules and ordinances whatsoever. The mundane reality of needing an elected board of owner directors for monthly taking care of business -- again, the key proviso for having gained tax-exempt status as a nonprofit public benefit corporation in the first place -- either didn't register in people's minds or they went into denial it existed. It was too invasive, too arbitrary, too self-defeating to the very reason they moved to the country. Go home, Big Brother.
They didn't want to even try to wrap their head around over the existence of such a pesky fly in the ointment to carefree country living. And who could blame them?
As said (probably too often), the illusion of anything goes manifested easily with the remote locale's overwhelming majority of often disinterested raw-parcel owners living far away. The latter held at most a phantom presence that one simply tuned out. Dwellers came to view the some thousand vacant, undeveloped parcels almost as public lands. Many felt like veritable land barons, supreme holders of their own inviolate fiefdoms.
In the early 2000s, one of the few residents then growing illicit cannabis, long before laws would liberalize, found himself with new neighbors who intended to do the same. Hoping to avoid bringing unwanted heat on his own operation, he persuaded them to leave by promising certain violence if they didn't.
So, between a critical handful of your more anarchistic-leaning residents, ignoring any and all rules and regulations interfering with doing whatever the hell they wanted and the county throwing up its hands, giving up on the place as a lost cause, respect for the rule of law got on ever-shakier ground.
More examples: some less than civic-minded entrepreneurial residents (as well as invasive outsiders), routinely poached firewood to sell off of vacant lots -- cutting down scores of even living trees, including some of the few mature pines that had long graced the region. And another party set up a huge dog-rescue kennel on unimproved, treeless land; neighbors up to a half mile away suffered endless barking of its unhappy caged residents baking in the sun for over a year until the operation was finally shut down.
And some took the law into their own hands. When a resident towards the top of White Drive discovered the surveyor had made an error decades ago on his boundaries, he tried closing off the road with a signed gate despite it legally being ages too late to remedy the error. Another neighbor had regularly used the road and so didn't think twice when encountering the sudden barrier: he backed up his bad-boy truck and smashed right through it, problem solved. Another neighbor, furious that others routinely sped by his place, raising clouds of dust just to tick him off, one night furtively dug a slanted trench across the road. That night, they roared by, lost control, and ran into a tree. And on yet another occasion, a resident, furious on learning his neighbor seemed intent on molesting on his young daughter, descended on the culprit's land late on a night he knew he was in jail and proceeded to wreck and loot his place to a fare-thee-well.
The land, by then dismissed as 'wasteland' by city folk rather than the delicate, subtle treasure of nature it essentially was, got disrespected. Some eventually would even deem the development no better than out-and-out "garbage land", implying it was good for nothing except being used.
The place's auspicious start during simpler times with relatively homogeneous, convention-minded, law-abiding dwellers had obviously faded into oblivion long ago.
Blame it on the mountain
One could maybe blame the powerful energy of the fabled mountain for people not working together any more. Through its natural force field, vortex energy or whatever one sensed it emanated, it was thought to stimulate the upper chakras and pull one meditatively inward. Bolstered by the place's very founder, who as a fellow camper in the early years also relished the freedom to do whatever one wanted on the land (within the prevailing conservative, buttoned-down, law-abiding mindset, of course), the mountain's influence perhaps worked to make each parcel feel like it was one's own Fortress of Solitude.
After the honeymoon camping years ended and the first big waves of quasi homesteading hit, people for a while actually campaigned to get voted onto the board. While some no doubt hoped to mellow the place and create a more fair minded operation, each according to their lights, others -- unapologetically control-freak minded -- wanted to reinforce the regimented hardliner stance on unsanctioned dwellings and inappropriate land uses, demanding everyone toe the line or, by God, they'd heaven and earth to make them wish they had.
That relatively community-active period would pass soon enough, though. Fast-forward decades and the place, getting overwhelmed by illicit residents, entered a period of pronounced civic indifference amid a lawless air. One punctuated by helpless, plaintive wails among the more code compliant of “What’s happening to this place?”
Lost in a fog, we'd become like a ship at sea without sail or rudder, aimlessly adrift. "Water, water, everywhere / nor any drop to drink" *
* Even as, in mind-boggling irony, residents on occasion had to work frantically to keep silty snow melt and mud of next door's seasonally running, sometimes rampaging Whitney Creek, from flooding section 28's lowlands. The Association sued the Forest Service for having allowed the course of the creek -- actually more of a seasonal wash -- to be diverted towards the new subdivision by removing a dam that had been built by people in the area that became Lake Shastina and no longer had need of or wanted to deal with it.
Ensuing periodic floods periodically washed out several Vista roads and parcels in section 28. It won the suit and the quarter-million dollar proceeds went to funding the massive earthen berm still along Buckhorn Road and Rising Hill Road to protect section 28 from future flooding. Between summer bulldozing efforts and creek itself cutting new courses over time, creek is currently diverted mostly out of harm's way, but not always: in August 2022, part of the berm was breached after prolonged, record 100 degree weather generated extraordinary amounts of snow melt (plus likely glacier melt), flooding property on both sides of berm amid Code Red evacuation alerts.
Bored joins the board
In the early 2010s, after over 30 years of feeling little fondness for the board and at times being demonized by certain of its members in return (short fuses being epidemic all around), writer at last warmed to the notion of serving on it. At the time, the board was hard-pressed to fill out more than three of its five seats, three being the legal minimum to conduct the essential business of approving road maintenance outlays and such. They weren't too picky about who volunteered beyond their needing to be a legal, code-compliant resident. If not rallying, the place could go into state receivership as a failed subdivision and face most unpleasant and expensive consequences. I was one of only a few who'd even sporadically attended monthly meetings, so one evening I was roped into commitment before I knew what was happening.
While it turned out becoming an officially failed subdivision was never a serious threat, it had flirted with such an ignominious downfall from time to time through the terminal indifference of both residents and sea of absentee property owners. The few who did serve on the board often soon became embittered. It could feel like no one appreciated their efforts, how they were volunteering their own time to meet the state's mandate and try to help the place out by doing what needed to be done. With so many members -- resident and absentee alike -- damning the board, all but the more determined and thick-skinned, civic-minded members burned out fast.
Some continued on, charred remnants of their former selves, sleepwalking through meetings, determined as dogs with a bone not to let go of the reigns, for fear no one could replace them and represent their interests...or that the place actually WOULD fail.
The board's pressure-cooker meetings easily proved detrimental to one's peace of mind. One had to be in full psychic armor, ready for battle -- despite few if any other property owners usually attending -- and could be made to feel like cannon fodder when told to sign a stack of legal foreclosure papers of property owners who'd given up on the place, disillusioned, or perhaps in dire financial straits.
One had to struggle to rise above endless seas of paperwork and dry, formal meeting procedure -- endured in the cramped, cold-fluorescent lit firehouse backroom -- if ever hoping to accomplish anything that one might conceivably be proud of. Spirits often felt subdued to the point of seeming like some clinical group depression. It was as if everyone felt the thankless, grand futility of it all but plugged away anyhow out of some frustrated sense of civic duty.
No doubt like many well-meaning board members before me, I'd hoped to help turn the place around: the situation was ridiculous, surreally, needlessly awful. But no, the die was cast, the course set, the situation so irreversible that any hope of rallying members to work together for mutual benefit and pull ourselves out of the quagmire we'd been stuck in for decades was only wishful thinking. No Hundredth Monkey was anywhere in sight.
After 18 months serving as secretary I stepped down sadder but wiser, newly aware on a gut level what the Vista was really up against. Decades of inertia and dull acceptance of an impossibly tangled situation had taken a steep toll. Short of a miracle, the cards appeared forever irreversibly stacked against the place. It was stuck in its own outgrown, sketchy structure that had enabled so many substandard, illicit living structures to crop up in the the place. We were dinosaurs stuck in a tar pit; lost in the murky shadows of long-cultivated sad resignation to the place's pronounced dysfunction while nursing a noteworthy denial of reality.
Born under a dark star?
Though mindful visitors might've sensed the land's special healing qualities -- some overnighters reported having the best dreams of their lives -- cynics, not without some measure of justification, sneeringly dismissed the beleaguered realm: “no water, no trees, nothing but desert and rattlesnakes.” Just a cheap rural bedroom community, a hideout for hard-drinking loners, small-time growers and spaced-out nature freaks, maybe a smattering of more respectable, hardworking dwellers, hoping to play out their elusive dream of simple country living and obviously having built in the wrong place.
The way so many came to slam the place, you'd think it was born under a dark star, a wicked witch’s cauldron boiling over with gnarly contention, any effort to resist its dismal fate pure folly.
Any into astrology might appreciate the esoteric influences on the day the place legally came into existence, November 3. It was none other than the birthday of TV's Scorpion Rosanne Barr, along with Colin Kaepernick and Charles Bronson. Some might say the brooding, super-wound energies at its moment of birth imprinted on the development all but guaranteed that the place would be a bit on the intense side. Lightening the mix, both Mars and Venus were in nature-loving Sagittarius at the time, along with a compassionate, dreamy moon in Pisces.
Then, according to cardology, the study of the unique planetary mix of DNA each day of the year, its 4 of diamonds birthday "favored methodical action, acute perception and precise, keen analysis" according to the book "Cards of Destiny" by Sharon Jeffers. It created "innate restlessness, possible dissatisfaction with what one was doing," and could make one "...a dreamer who doesn't always allow dreams to become reality."
That last surely fit the Vista to a T.
In any event, the once openly shared, carefree vacation lands reached a critical tipping point somewhere along the way: Enough anarchistic-leaning residents, each determined to do their own thing (whether legal or not, no matter); landholders with buyer remorse and little to no interest in the place except to cash out; the scene getting so sketchy, no one was longer interested in moving in and building to code; and -- crucially -- the county dropping its residential code enforcer position in a severe budget crunch during the 2008-9 Great Recession... these factors all combined to create a perfect storm of what one might call terminal dysfunctionality.
The coalescing situation would now let any so inclined have a field day pursuing whatever inappropriate land uses they might dream up -- junk yards, dog kennels, meth labs -- off private dirt roads tucked far away from paved public roads and prying eyes. No matter if such uses upset the peace and quiet and country solitude so many had dropped anchor here for and had collectively invested decades of time, money, and sweat establishing.
A majority of the realm's less invested residency were so used to the place being discombobulated -- a low-key edge city hideaway in the boonies -- that they either couldn't or didn't want to read the writing on the wall (or read it and said "So what?").
Looking back with the omniscience of perfect 20-20 hindsight, it was perhaps a disaster just waiting to happen.
The Vista thru Time
Further tales and spins on most peculiar
Mount Shasta Vista's first 50 years
Knowing where the Vista -- as many residents called it -- came from could go a good ways to understanding where it went. Had the place’s metaphorical foundation, as it were, first been tents and trailers set on sand; then evolved to full-on homes built on rock; then went sideways to makeshift shelters back on sand?
Whatever happened, all along, lack of any easier water played a major role. KRCE landowner Will Jensen, long ago reporting in his blog of exhaustive searches to find the ideal rural home property with an inspiring Mt. Shasta view, said, “No matter who we talked to we were warned away from Mt. Shasta Vista...we were told repeatedly that Mt. Shasta Vista was bad for wells…”
Back to the ‘80s
By the mid 1980s, Vista’s resident population had grown to maybe 150 or 200. Scattered over the vastness of seven square miles of high-desert woodlands, this was still a mere sprinkling, the place worlds away from even beginning to be built out. As said, many dwellers felt like land barons -- especially on parcels distant from the relative concentration of structures connecting to the few scattered power lines. Between our places we had buffers of over a thousand empty, largely unspoiled parcels.
But no matter how much pristine land one might’ve enjoyed, an unsettling undercurrent could lurk just below the surface. One that often jammed one’s peace of mind and ability to experience any simple joys of country living. With lingering resolve of the imperious property-owners boards of yore, waging war with any and all code violators, one was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. On the subtle, it could almost feel like one was living in crowded tenement, angry landlord pounding on the door for a pound of flesh.
It was one of the ironies of living in the Vista. Either you detached and became philosophical about it all or you soon found yourself over-identifying with Munch’s screamer.
It would drive more than a few to drink.
Missing word sank efforts
About 2012, an overdue effort was launched by some more civic-minded residents. We formed a committee to try to revise the woefully outdated CC&Rs. Not ambitiously overhaul them, just tinker with them a bit to hopefully better support the changed realities of the place. After much slow sledding, a glitch in the progress report sent out to everyone promptly sank efforts. The pamphlet cover’s title was supposed to read: “Proposed Changes to Mt. Shasta Vista Bylaws”. The all-critical first word somehow got left out, making the changes sound like a done deal. This prompted a barely-peaceable pitchforks-and-torches crowd storming the next board meeting. Residents who normally avoided meetings like the plague had come out of the woodwork.
They suspected that the property owners board -- in times past referred to in wry contempt as “the gestapo” -- was staging a coup.
Long and winding roads
While you had your own private parcel, modest annual ‘road dues’ assessments were, as said, out-and-out resented by those not having their own roads better maintained. Various absentee owners added to the chorus, claiming they could barely reach their parcels located in more remote and unsettled regions because their roads hadn’t been touched in ages. Most-neglected stretches could develop deep dry pools of tire-grabbing, quicksand-like silt, so bad AAA tow trucks eventually refused to even come out to rescue them once their own rig got stuck in turn and their monster tow truck had to be called.
It didn’t help that summertime neighbor Whitney Creek, rambunctious when summer's extreme heat melted a heavy winter snowfall, could flood its banks. It once actually put most of Section 28 under nine inches of water, forcing an evacuation and making regional TV news. Worst of the many floods over time, until a massive earthen berm was finally built up, it had washed away some areas roads so badly, the board abandoned certain roads and bought the parcels of those who could no longer reach their parcels short of driving a Hummer. They figured it'd be cheaper than constant rebuilding of the remote stretch of road.
Train wreck of a place
Many parcel holders were a frugal lot: bought the land cheap, moved in cheap, wanted to keep things cheap. It seemed next to impossible to build any cohesive community in such a bare-bones, contentious social climate. The situation was (as writer keeps harping on) hugely compounded by the sea of absentee owners who kept parcels as investments yet came to feel the holdings a dratted albatross about their necks both for the ouchy annual assessment fee and chronic soft market conditions. Such a flood of negative energies beamed onto the land by remote kept up the strong psychic undertow that hamstrung the ability or desire of any so inclined residents to work together for the common good.
At some point, having no legal foundation on which to build any standard community, the place -- caught between a rock and a hard place, between its original use and the new one as a de facto informal community -- simply shorted out. It became a terminally stalled-out, broken-down development. A spectacularly failed, train wreck of a subdivision that had grown too big for its britches in trying to become anything else.
It's safe to say such illusions were never harbored by those who built code-approved homes -- complete with approved foundation, well, septic, inside plumbing and power, initially everyone who moved here. They knew in their bones it would require everyone else following their lead if the development were to remain a functional community. That's why they were so spitting-nails mad when people started moving in on the cheap and displaying infuriating, "Whadarya goin' to do about it, hee-hee?" attitudes.
In any event, over time the place, now a broad willy-nilly mix of approved living structures and illegal ones, stabilized of sorts. It became not too unlike, say, a quarter-risen cake that had stopped rising, partially collapsed, then dried out and over time solidified. Though caught between worlds, it was informally recycled away its former dedication, its residency becoming like hermit crabs moving into abandoned rec land shells. Many and sundry actually considered it a nice place to live, despite all. It was our 'failed' subdivision after all.
Living here was like wearing a comfy if disreputable-looking old pair of sneakers that had yet to develop worrisome holes in the soles.
No such kind regard was ever felt among most of the eighty percent of property holders constituting the development's absentee membership. They were NOT enjoying the land. Many had now been holding onto their title deeds for decades, gritting their teeth, doubling down and shelling out each year for upkeep of roads they never drove on lest their land be repossessed -- as countless hundreds indeed were over time. This churn rate created extra income for the salaried management processing the sea of legal paperwork, driving up associations dues, plus quick commissions for expedient realtors who kept offering the embarrassment of beleaguered lots as land steals to the gullible, undiscriminating and land-hungry.
Like characters in “Waiting for Godot,” land holders patiently had stood by waiting for values to rise so they could lose the clunkers without losing their shirts.
Beginnings re-visited: ten-cent parcels
with million-dollar views
Earliest campers in the new seeming wonderland no doubt savored it like fine wine. In spring, it delighted the eyes with surprise subtle splashes of lavender, purple, red, and yellow wildflowers. Green lichen moss on aging and dead junipers seemed almost magical, dazzling eyes with rich, near-phosphorescent green. After rains, the pungent earthy scent of damp juniper and sage was like perfume.
Abundant wildlife included deer, jackrabbits, cottontails, plentiful birds, ever-friendly chipmunks, polecats, porcupines; yes, rattlesnakes; a rare mountain lion and other wildcats; tiny kangaroo rats with their impossibly long tails, hopping about at dusk...
First vacationers returned home refreshed, anticipating next year’s visit to their group wilderness hideaway and all the new improvements they’d work on during rendezvous with friends new and old to make the place nicer for everyone.
Seldom heard: a discouraging word
Early parcel owners gathered at night to enjoy campfire get-togethers. Sometimes coyotes yipping up a storm in the distance no doubt time-warped the more suggestible back to the days of the old West, maybe prompting spontaneous choruses of “Home on the Range.” And they enjoyed daytime potlucks and barbecues under the unfailing majesty of Mt. Shasta’s northern side (staggering view that local photographer Keven Lahey would race over to snap giant lenticular clouds flying off it or hovering overhead like an impossibly huge mothership).
Judging by writings in the association's old Vistascope newsletters, visitors shared in euphoric waves of feelgoodness that swept the land during those rarefied purple-haze days of late ‘60s to early ‘70s...along with the gnarly uprisings and protests, of course.
...and the saucers flew by-y-y all night
Even if one was a hard-line Nam war hawk, hostile to emerging counterculture, with its free-minded ways, spirits ran high...no doubt aided and abetted by their own mind-altering drug of choice, alcohol. And group’s buzz might’ve been further heightened by something quite extraordinary: unknowingly copping a contact high from parties aboard then-frequent UFOs that were sighted darting about the mountain around that time and nationally reported on.
The embryonic community might've thus gained a rare super-charge from curious advanced beings checking out the singing earth people camping out on the mountain's sparsely settled side.
To any susceptible to the subtle charms of the land -- magnified for being under the mountain’s powerful spell and, again, perhaps even having its own unique vortex energies -- it was a nature lovers’ paradise. One they’d work to make nicer for others to better enjoy. Light-duty cinder roads were immaculately groomed by the membership’s workhorse road truck, flowers planted at some of the five highway entrances, the welcoming archway lifted up. Soon group civic improvement efforts peaked on establishing the de facto community well and extending a few power lines to places whose owners had committed to building shelters to code.
It’s said in metaphysical thinking that the imprint of earliest inhabitants on a land establishes a subtle vibration signature that it then forever resonates with no matter what might later happen on it. If accepting this for a moment… Prehistoric indigenous people seasonally hunted game here but didn’t settle, probably over lack of water and not daring to live too close to such a powerful mountain. Beyond them and the isolated first white settlers on the land like Eli Barnum by Sheep Rock in the 1850s, and later hunters and grazers, it might be said that the first major, indelible imprint on the land was made by none other than the modern-day-pioneering Vistans in the mid to late 1960s.
They would bestow on the land an euphoric, industrious, perhaps topsy-turvy energy, a DNA signature the land would henceforth forever resonate with, even if getting buried under the surface over time. (Another example: often wild, free-spirited San Francisco: reportedly in nice weather its first inhabitants loved nothing better than to roll in the mud and then run around naked.)
Apart from such possible influences, whenever a mindful visitor unwound and really tuned into the land, they might have sensed a pronounced soft, almost-otherworldly dreamland quality about it. In spots beyond earshot of the highway, no jets droning overhead or train rumbling in the distance, the land held a profoundly rich, deep quietude. Repeat visitors and residents came to embrace it like a long-lost lover. (Explorers of Pluto Caves, just beyond one Vista border, might’ve felt something of the quality.)
But the dreamy atmosphere came with a mundane downside. Tenuous new residents, wowed by parcels bought for a song, could get so caught up in fantasy that they could never integrate being there with doing what needed to be done to get things legally squared away and so give their brainstorms a chance to manifest.
Instead they'd remain pipe dreams.
Over time, countless one-time owners came and went, happy bubbles burst after a few months or years ignoring -- or being ignorant of -- mundane realities created by the powers that be, obligating one to establish a minimum standard of living or else...until finally they were shocked awake like buckets of ice water dumped over their heads.
The serene, almost mystical land could grab newbies as magical and affordable, getting them all enthused until -- like the Star Trek TV episode where the landing team finds a planet that at first blush appears a wondrous paradise -- they inevitably discover its fatal flaw.
A fine place by George
Developer George Collins, apparently smitten by the land's subtle charms no less than other early-comers, actually joined vacationers during the first vacationing years. He became on many levels the glue that held the place together. He was the place's cheerleader, first board president and informally pitched in with funds and resources to help the place along at every turn. “...I consider myself privileged to be a neighbor to each and every one of you,” he said in early newsletter, going on to wax poetic how the place was “...our home away from home, our frontier, our Shangri-la...there should be a constant flurry of barbecue parties, coffee klatches and just informal get-togethers all through the year.”
While he might’ve only created a simple recreational subdivision -- one lacking critical infrastructure to facilitate ever evolving into anything more, the limited initial ambition over time causing endless headache and heartbreak for myriad visitors, residents and would-be residents alike -- at least he wasn't your disinterested land developer who just took the money and ran.
He was central in place's beginnings on so many levels -- founder, midwife, president, daddy moneybags -- that other property owners likely got used to the place being taken care of by him. They perhaps, on one level became like passive land tenants, dependent on him to do whatever needed to be done. "Let George do it" might well have been the prevailing attitude. He was like some benevolent overlord, doing all the heavy lifting and so sparing the rest the trouble. As a result, few ever become motivated or any more empowered to run the place according to their own lights.
When he finally moved on (for reasons unknown), owner residents, their father having abandoned them, suddenly had to scramble. They were faced with a huge learning curve, assuming responsibilities and dealing with ongoing realities that some probably never knew existed. One might speculate that it was at this point that the association, lost at sea, first began to unravel. Switching similes, they'd been abandoned by their captain and were left forever trying to regain bearings on their own but never quite gaining them for long.
The development might seem to succeed for a while under more able board members, but then lose track with the endless shuffle of new, green, less motivated or knowledgeable volunteers. There was always a lot of on-the-job training going on, and by the time new volunteers got the lay of the land, they'd often burned out...and the process began all over with other newbies.
One's left wondering if perhaps at first Collins did initially have ambitions to launch an actual infrastructure-supported residential development, but then realized water was too iffy and so scaled down plans. Or if, all along, he'd envisioned the area -- too isolated then in a sparsely populated farming community to attract people to want to live here -- being no more than a simple, shared recreational land (but one that, even so, you might want to retire to 'bye 'n' bye'). Or if he'd hoped to have founded what might in time become a nice rural community despite no better CC&Rs to support one, then lost heart when divisive squabbles erupted over the power fund (covered next chapter) and some began to tell him where to get off. Or later (if still here, writer's not sure when he faded from the scene), between the code compliant and outlaw builders, and he realized the county wasn't equipped to keep a handle on things despite compliant residents fully willing to work with them, and then, foreseeing a decidedly thorny situation, beat a hasty exit.
In any event, maybe he had come to kick himself for not laying a more ambitious foundation to serve the place into the future.
Lookin' for a sign
The Vista’s raw parcels on a per-acre basis were some ten times cheaper than next door's Lake Shastina development, started a couple years later in 1968. The Vista first attracted an equally solvent if more rough-and-ready vacationing camper crowd than the second-home buyer group that Lake Shastina developers had initially wooed with all its serious infrastructure.
Road signs were critical inside Vista's endless 66 mile maze. Even longtime residents could get lost if venturing beyond accustomed routes. After ages here, one night driving about, I suddenly realized I had no idea where I was. Finally getting to an intersection and spotting a stenciled 4X4 wooden road sign post, I climbed out and shone my flashlight on it: the painted lettering had faded away, done in by the elements.
Delinquents would later topple and steal the third generation’s tall, elaborate metal signage, perhaps feeling their slick, citified energies clashed with place's rustic ambiance -- that, or just wanted to make it harder for anyone to find them if they didn't want to be found, leaving those unfamiliar with the roads feeling so lost in a maze that they'd give up the search and switch focus to finding their way out.
Doomed by the sea of phantom parcel owners?
Again, many lot holders never set foot on their properties. They'd snapped them up in pure speculation (plus maybe the excitement and bragging rights for owning a piece of California), hoping eventual improvements like central piped water and extended power lines would skyrocket parcel values. Over the decades, property titles traded like baseball cards at recess. If each parcel on average changed hands just three times over its first 50 years (probably an underestimate), then the place up til 2015 had had a rotating ownership of some 5,000 individuals, living all over the nation, plus involved family members.
That was a world of absentee ownership; it would forever keep the place more than a little sketchy around the edges.
While there were loads of phantom speculative interest in the place, there was little desire to work together to make a place its sparse residents might actually take pride in, like its earliest vacationers and residents. Many latter-day newcomers who first plugged in and involved themselves in affairs soon experienced the realm's dread undertow. It in turn created the Mt. Everest of inertia that kept any substantial positive change from ever happening. An utter sense of futility finally hit them and they either gave up or drastically scaled back any civic involvement. The few undeterred, more thick-skinned and unwavering, became like so many Don Quixotes tilting at windmills.
By the Vista’s fiftieth year in 2015 -- a milestone noted by few if any, much less celebrated -- absentee owners still outnumbered residents over seven to one.
Setting the standard
Again, homes of the early 1970s' law-abiding pioneers, jazzed by the dirt-cheap, subtly scenic and nicely secluded high-desert forest properties, were fully legal structures, enthusiastically built in which to enjoy their golden years.* They'd dutifully complied with County’s often-onerous health and building codes: approved foundation, electric, septic, well, plumbing, insulation, walls to withstand heavy winds and roofs to support deep snow.
*Among them the Nortons, Sheltons, and Smothermons. The last surviving one, Bill Waterson, died at home in 2015 at 98. Future residents claimed they felt his spirit haunting the place he'd built. (notice how how all names end in '-on'?)
They'd doubtless nurtured hopes of the place in time blossoming into a full-on backwoods community, one for which they, as founding members, had established a modestly comfortable, fully code-compliant living standard. One that others would be attracted to and follow suit, together eventually growing the secluded development into an enviable rural community. But it all hinged on every newcomer shelling out extra to generate their own infrastructure in the form of wells, septic systems, extended power lines, and then build to code. If not, all was lost.
“You got a permit for that?"
Health and building codes were so rigorously enforced in Siskiyou County then that the first wave of owner builders, a super law-abiding sort, never thought twice about conforming to them. They dutifully jumped through all the hoops and not unreasonably expected others to do the same. Anyone wanting to stay longer than 30 days a year -- the ostensible legal limit for roughing it on one's unimproved property in California -- had to earn the right, by golly, just as they had.
So dutifully compliant residents of course went apoplectic in fury when people started trying to move in on the cheap, hauling in tumbledown trailers, setting up tents or throwing up makeshift structures. They’d deem them illegal squatters on their own parcels. They'd report them to authorities almost like they were criminals.
Some might've found this sorry situation a more than tad ironic turn of events for a place that started out as simple camp lands.
The Vista Through Time
1965-2015, Part 5
Continuing informal history, tales and reflections on
the Mount Shasta Vista subdivision's first 50 years.
Power to the people
In the early 1970s, Vista’s landholders started a power-and-light fund, built up by volunteer donation. It hoped to remedy the domain's perhaps too primitive condition.
The fund would enable extending power lines to any parcel whose owner had committed to building a shelter to code and bringing in wells. The power company, on the strength of developer Collins’s assurances he’d try to get everyone on board, had reportedly made tenuous commitment to extend power to every single lot in the development.
The place was at a critical turning point: If everyone went along, it would surely be on its way to developing into an actual, bonefide community, forever leaving its simple beginnings behind.
But a quarter of the membership rebelled, refusing to ante up. This despite a membership newsletter note from Collins, along the line of "I know you each bought your lot out in the middle of nowhere so you could do with it whatever you damn well please, but...", pleading for the holdouts to reconsider. But some among them decided they were content to enjoy their rustic retreats just the way they were, thank you very much. They enjoyed roughing it on vacations and felt unsightly power lines and poles would despoil the scenery and erode the rustic charm of the land. Other rebels, maybe even the majority, were absentee-owner speculators, some having already soured on the place and loathe to sink another cent in the boondoggle. Possibly they thought that getting power to every lot wouldn't do much to increase the place's value due to the water scarcity.
So the fund, limited, worked on a first come, first serve basis, and was exhausted after a few dozen builders tapped it dry. The power company, having anticipated a flood of new, power-guzzling customers, quickly backed out of its commitment. They'd been discouraged anyhow by frequent drill-shattering lava rock strata encountered that required expensive bit replacement.
Before efforts shut down the power company planted tall street lamps at each highway A-12 entrance. The beacons -- which gave off an eerie, bluish, cold glow -- kept getting shot out by locals. Perhaps they were still fulminating over the subdivision ever getting greenlighted and delighted in sabotaging it without even having to leave the blacktop. Sadly, after a few persistent rounds of target practice, the road lamps were at last removed, returning the entrances to darkness at night.
All told, no more than maybe 10-15% of the 1640 parcels were ever connected to the grid. No doubt some owners who'd contributed to the fund, perhaps assuming everyone would, later became bitter, eventually selling, if finally wanting to build but being told they were out of luck and the power company then quoted them a rude $15,000 figure to extend power to their land.
Much later, the place missed a sure bet not embracing solar electricity over time, what with its enviable banana-belt micro-climate and solar technology's plummeting set-up costs. It could be so sunshiny on some March days, one might be soaking up the rays while in Weed, fifteen miles away, hunched-over snow shovelers still dreamed of spring. The first of rare solar electric systems was installed by resident Brian Green, co-founding photographer of now thriving HomePower magazine.* (In contrast to the Vista, not far away McCloud region’s Shasta Forest subdivision, considerably further away from power lines but far more dutifully code-compliant, came to embrace solar full tilt.)
The writer in 1989 became one of very few residents to embrace solar electricity. In my case it became sunshine or bust (no backup generator), which even now powers this article's periodic revisions.
* While the home's later owner lost the place to the Lava Fire of 2021, one thing miraculously survived unscathed: the latest bank of solar panels; safely perched above on its metal stand in a clearing amid otherwise total devastation, it looked like nothing at all was amiss as far as it was concerned.
While many hit good water between 200 to 350 feet or so, some wells were plagued with iron levels that dyed laundry pink or arsenic amounts that made drinking a bit dicey. And sometimes Shasta Vista’s underground water table proved FAR deeper -- 700 to 800 feet or more in areas like section 23. Developer Collins and others got together the ad hoc community well that any land owner was welcome to use until their own wells were in, plus to fill up containers during camp vacations; he sold a water truck to the association for a dollar. Once the truck was eventually switched to fire use only, those with prohibitively deep water tables found getting wells problematic -- one resident alone had three costly misses -- and so formed Property Owners Without Water, or POWW, getting another water truck together.*
*A historic remnant, last known the blue truck was still parked in front of Waterson's former residence on Meadow Road, looking as if chomping at the bit to haul yet more water.
In 1980 it came to light by County Health, on the wings of steeper California water-use laws, that the unofficial, never-sanctioned community well was totally illegal. And the water truck not certified for delivering potable water. Department head, Dr. Bayuk, quickly capped the 26-residence water-truck club membership with an iron fist. He told us at a special meeting that he had the discretionary power to let POWW members continue drawing from well and would do so in light of many members having sold their former homes and bought or built here on the realtors’ assurance there was a community well and so one needn’t drill right away if funds didn't allow.
But he demanded all others now drill private wells before they could get a septic and building permit and, thus, official permission to live on their property for more than 30 days a year as unimproved land without maybe being made to feel by compliant neighbors that one had overstayed their welcome. He hoped the membership, being nontransferable to subsequent home buyers, would fade away as people either got wells, died or sold their places.
We were basically on our honor to comply. But inertia, so incredibly powerful in Vista's manana land, again reigned supreme. Some, rather than ever springing for a well, became resigned to hauling water as the price one paid for living here so affordably and simply -- i.e. below the radar of the official powers that be. They wanted to avoid spending some fortune on drilling efforts that might not even hit water, or hit good water, or enough water, plus the often the great expense of getting power lines strung to power deeper well pumps.
Water-hauling membership was supposedly nontransferable, but it was seldom, if ever, enforced. There were over a half dozen otherwise code-legal homes in section 23 alone, which water hauling rights had technically been voided ages ago on owner changes, but later owners never went for wells and still hauled away. (The county apparently didn't like to mess with homes once passing the final building department inspection; their job was done forever as far as they were concerned.)
Unfortunately, it all lent the impression one didn't even need a well to build a house in the Vista. Or you could build first, then sometime down the road try for a well.
Decades later, solution-minded residents would apply for a government grant to fund a proposed central water supply system. It was declined for the project being deemed too few people helped for the high cost involved.
Dr. Bayuk had cautioned Vista board members to forbid anyone from using the now controversial well beyond POWW’s own group. But efforts to control access proved sketchy to none, no one obviously wanting to volunteer for guard duty and fencing off and padlocking access apparently somehow being seen as either unfeasible or too much work.
Fast-forward decades and things were still out of control. Residents living on the cheap and below radar, never intending to drill, kept relying on the one-time quasi community well. They assumed it was a permanent amenity that came with the land.
One neighbor made daily drives for a teeming menagerie of farm critters in an ancient Cadillac with backseat removed. Some reportedly even copped showers there. During exotic weather, some of place's more free-spirited denizens sometimes went without clothes; chancing a quick shower at the site with only sporadic traffic going by some 60 feet away was no doubt felt worth it in order to luxuriate in a fast cool down and rehydration on exotic 95-degree days.
Finally, Vista board members feared being fined by the state. Or sued by well-owning residents, outraged over their dues going to replace the pump and pay monthly power bills, feeling their dues were effectively subsidizing code noncompliance. So the board came up with a simple solution: get rid of it. They sold it outright, no discussion or prior notice to association members. Done deal, end of story -- except for the unbridled fury of suddenly well-less residents, left high and dry. And they got sued anyhow, by one irate resident on faintly related, far-fetched racketeering charges. He promptly lost and the lawyer gained a NEW Cadillac as part payment.
“It’s all a big scam, I tell ya…”
Between earlier, fitfully enforced legal-residency codes and the end of the longtime informal community well, it must've seemed to all the non-compliant told to get own wells or else that a grossly unfair building moratorium was clamped on the place out of nowhere. Of course, it was all standard procedure to gain legal residency anywhere in California. But our place had always felt exceptional, perhaps in part for having such difficult water and being in such remote hinterlands -- and maybe also for seeming to be under its own special dreamland spell. Somehow it could feel beyond the pale of normal regulations. Almost as if a realm unto itself, operating on its own unique frequency and penciling in its own rules as it saw fit, only as suggestions at that.
Land-hungry buyers on a shoestring, lured by seeming bargain lands and not exercising due diligence, later felt majorly scammed. Especially if they were roused by the county, having been sold cheap land they were later told they couldn’t live on legally without first spending a fortune to satisfy code. They’d accuse the Association board, management and realtors of all being in cahoots somehow, churning properties for quick financial gain or keeping an opaque power hold on the place by such constant shuffling, preying on people's abiding desire to own their own land and knowing they couldn't afford to live on it legally.
The unending cycle, as parcel buyers saw it: lot sells after realtor maybe downplayed how problematic it was to try living on as-is or offering a wink as if to say the rules usually went unenforced; purchaser, disillusioned if hassled, quits paying annual POA assessment in disgust; lot eventually gets foreclosed on; Association re-lists parcel and realtors wait for next suc -- er, buyer -- to come along.
In later times, probably one DID know the score and just didn’t care. They were game to join Vista’s growing non-compliant population, emboldened over the County having scrapped its residential-code enforcement officer position for a critical five year period. It indeed lent the impression that anything went in the wild, woolly back country.
Of course, it was always Buyer Beware. But you’d think more sporting realtors might’ve at least posted this sobering reminder over their doors.
People with enough resources to pay $30,000 or more to drill a well and perhaps as much again to get power extended to their property had enough to buy land -- and more than any piddly 2-½ acres -- with far easier water depth and unencumbered by ceaseless ornery squabblings of disaffected neighbors. Why would anyone spend a fortune to buy into such a discombobulated, sub-standard place?
It struck many that cheap land and million-dollar views only went so far.
Plenty of room left in Hotel California
As it turned out, Shasta Vista’s founder families had either known each other from down south or met during early annual summer camping vacations. Seven or so retirement-age couples, as said flush with cash from selling their L.A. area digs, built most of the first full-on residences. In so doing, and territorial imperative being so powerful, they were transforming the place into their own, de facto rural retirement community.
In ways that counted most, for a long while the Vista became “their” place. They sprang to volunteer and serve on Vista’s state-mandated board of directors, which ostensible main task (some maintained only) in required monthly meetings was deciding on budgeting the road maintenance and keeping a handle on signage, plus address any of sundry member concerns brought to their attention by other land owners.
First-comers had felt such an overwhelming frustration seeing their place getting out of hand that the board’s appointed duties unofficially grew to include shrilly blowing the whistle to County powers that be over any and all unapproved construction, or even overextended camping visits.
Desperate to try keeping the endangered shangri-la from suffering further decline to its living standards, with all its laid-back, convention-minded SoCal bonhomie, reporting of infractions to authorities were incessant and ongoing. They rang their phones off the hook. Board members and their cohorts kept demanding that the appropriate county authorities act immediately and hold any and all scofflaws’ feet to the fire for so flagrantly attempting to live within the Vista's domain of legally established residences on the cheap.
If enforcers didn’t do their job and the non-compliant got away with it, it’d amount to selective ordinance enforcement and be possible grounds for a lawsuit against the county. So stretched-thin enforcers tried to oblige, even if eventually grinding their teeth for having to keep dealing with what had obviously become a major perpetual problem child for the county...one that no matter how much they tried to get a handle on things would never last for long before a new rash of illicit structures cropped up, demanding new enforcement action. Whack-a-mole.
Embracing law and order for all it was worth, volunteer posses had geared up their compliance crusade to patrol the endless back roads. They'd run to earth any and all trying to call the Vista home while ignoring county ordinances -- whether willfully or in ignorance, no matter; the law was the law. In time, the posse wouldn’t even talk to culprits. Maybe they’d tried earlier but got huffy and were told what they could do with their procedures. So instead they just got the parcel assessment numbers from their master map index and called in complaints over each and every minutiae of noncompliance bloodhounding searches uncovered.
It was for such a scorched earth stance that the unkind moniker of "the gestapo" was bestowed on the board by Vista's more live-and-let-live residents. They were in turn shocked by such a rigid, zero-tolerance campaign. Playing hardball somehow just didn't seem to go with the would-be tranquil, calm lands. Even though the place had seriously gotten off track with code compliance, there must've been some better way to resolve things than declare a ruthless war. Maybe not. In any event, sixty-six miles of private roads made for constant efforts, as momentum to build without seeking the county's blessings and getting away with it got stronger with time.
Driving around a neighboring section long ago, writer one day met a high-spirited man and his pregnant partner on their land. They’d just thrown up a little makeshift two-story crackerbox palace. Instant home, a goat or two grazed contentedly on nearby brush. I returned with a sense of foreboding a month later. Sure enough, they were long gone; their shelter had been bulldozed to the ground, looking as if it had been struck by a tornado.
It was far from some isolated incident. Though one could say it was their own fault for not doing due diligence (or suspected they knew the score but decided to roll the dice anyhow), many would-be country dwellers’ fondest dreams of cultivating simple, affordable backwoods living were dashed to smithereens during the Vista’s Intolerable Years, which spanned roughly from the mid 1970s through much of the 1990s. Half-completed structures of varying ambition stood forlornly abandoned, in time picked off by furtive lumber 'recyclers'. ("Hey, it's just going to waste; I'm providing a service.")
Vista’s seemingly affordable, easy-come, easy-go lands over the decades proved instead to be easy-come, hard-go if one dared try to do anything beyond camping out on their land a few weeks a year.
Welcome to Mt. Shasta Vista...now go away
Large imposing signs planted at each of place's five blacktop entrances, plus each section corner, made the board's policy crystal clear in large black lettering. They fairly shouted, HEALTH AND BUILDING CODES STRICTLY ENFORCED.
Woe betide any poor soul failing to heed its dire warning.
So along comes your writer. I was a rambling 29 year-old burned out from living on the road, land-hungry, with visions of building a bower in the wilderness dancing in his head. With champagne taste but on a beer budget, I’d soon warm to the notion of building in the bone-dry yet unspoiled, super-affordable juniper lands instead of the redwood creek side of my dreams -- to blasted code if that’s what it took. That is, as meager resources and steep learning curve allowed. Though it would become the biggest project of my life up to that time, at least lumber then was relatively cheap and the building code a smidgen less onerous and costly to comply with than now.
To my impressionable mind the growling entrance signs were of more than a passing concern. Even if lots were refreshingly cheap -- most listed for $1,750. with $250. down and $25./month at 7% interest -- the place appeared more than a tad unfriendly. Signage seemed to actually be saying something along the line of, “Welcome to Mt. Shasta Vista. No this, no that, no the other thing under penal codes such and such; violators will be hung by their toenails; in fact, we DARE you to enter.” Or, more directly, “Welcome, now go away.”
On reading a further warning in huge letters, “Private Property -- Trespassers will be Prosecuted”, part of me felt I might be arrested any second. It was like I’d stumbled onto some top-secret government compound and should turn around while there was still time.
As was the case with countless others, land hunger and cheap lot prices would win out over common sense and the negative first impression screaming red alert.
Sign wording was of course meant to discourage would-be substandard dwellings and, God forbid, any “white trailer trash” or scraggly hippies from ever settling in the still mostly code-compliant scene on the cheap, eroding the enclave's genteel atmosphere and property values. Also to dissuade any would-be wood poachers, hunters, trash dumpers, vehicle abandoners or miscreants harboring designs of plundering goods trustingly left in trailers and mobile homes on seasonally visited only lands. (In time, even a 10 X 40 foot vacant mobile would get snatched in the dead of night and relocated to another lot without consequence.)
Maybe they needed that loud bark after all.
...with screenplay by Rod Serling
However, the working Chinese philosophy of feng shui holds that the given energy at an entrance sets up a vibration that the entire place then resonates with. Sadly, the essence of the gnarly wording indeed seemed to ripple out throughout the realm, especially it being reinforced with further signs at each section corner. Friends visiting me decades later, as if not wanting to tempt fate, parked their vehicle by the barking sign and walked the entire way in, over a mile.
Entering the Vista for the first time then could be like walking into the middle of a movie and trying to figure out a plot that seemed in turn scripted by Zane Grey, Rod Serling and J. Edgar Hoover.
That nice welcoming wooden arch once spanning the main entrance? After the writer in due course received his own 'unwelcome wagon', he felt it might just as well have added a fair warning below it: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
Vista through Time
1965-2015, Part 6
Conclusion of rambling informal history, remembrances and reflections
on the first fifty years of Mount Shasta Vista development
"We can chart our future clearly and wisely only
when we know the path which has led to the present."
-- Adlai E. Stevenson
It perhaps came as no surprise that the Vista entrance signs’ less-than-welcoming energy was reflected in its mandatory monthly board meetings, open to parcel owners and family members. Though sometimes dull as dishwater, proceedings could just as often be incredibly contentious. Once a fistfight actually broke out on the floor.
It was as if the place had somehow been infected with a deadly cancer that was eating away at its would-be rustic tranquility. The swelling tsunami waves of constant bickering among dwellers could be so mind boggling, it would’ve made rich fodder for a Hunter S. Thompson book: “Fear and Loathing in the Vista.”
The first residents maybe felt something like the earliest gold prospectors during the California Gold Rush. Then their once-idyllic scene of having rich digs all to themselves turned to pandemonium once a flood fellow seekers of prized yellow stone descended en masse. Earliest Vistans had the place all to themselves. As more moved in, they had the ball and ran with it, clinging to it for dear life, trying to keep the place from getting overrun by those moving in without complying with health and building regulations.
Sometimes, imperious board members tried to avoid public discussion on a controversial matter by mumbling “public comments?” out of the side of their mouths before taking a fast vote. "Motion?...second?...all those in favor...passed." They'd banked on newbies’ unfamiliarity with formal meeting procedure. Shouts of protest once concerned parties realized what was happening were countered by simpering yells from board supporters: “Robert's Rules! Robert's Rules!”
First comers’ dream of establishing a backwoods shangri-la had turned into a nightmare. The Vista was coming apart at the seams.
As more and more people moved in, many of such modest means and perhaps rebellious nature that building to code was never even considered, involved county government parties reached a critical tipping point in trying to keep a handle on the place via residents reporting infractions. Beyond this point, they were unable and/or unwilling to enforce the codes and ordinances. (The very same ones that people living in town, nowhere to hide, perforce toed the line on, if without enthusiasm.)
The time came when county authorities seemed to dismiss code enforcement effort outright in the sprawling, misbegotten realm. It was obviously a lost cause. One sometimes got the impression they liked to pretend it simply didn't exist -- like the place's scofflaw dwellers towards their rules -- that is, beyond the county's property tax collectors' and property assessors' unfailing attentions. It seemed the only responses, other than actual emergencies, were to persistent calls from fuming parties who'd become such pains it was easier to drag themselves out and tell the culprits, "Hey, you can't be doing this, you better stop or else," and hope the admonishment would stick.
White bread outpost
Even though some might've held little sympathy for the first-comer's at times ruthless war over things, it was was still heartbreaking seeing a place one had held such high hopes for irretrievably slip away...perhaps not unlike a predestined romance, shorting out for one party being asleep at the wheel at the critical moment of truth. The Vista could’ve, should've, would've become such a nice, well-settled backwoods community, the envy of city-locked people everywhere...
...if only a white-bread one. For although in later years absentee owners appeared to become racially diverse, judging by file list of owner names, actual residents in 2014 -- numbering perhaps 300 to 350 -- were still overwhelmingly white. While there were some Hispanic, there seemed to be few to no Black, Asian, or Native Americans. Growing up in the polyglot melting pot of San Francisco, writer didn’t find anything amiss about this -- other than wincing whenever a neighbor dropped the ‘n’ word in casual conversation (and, later, the 'c' word). I’d pretty much learned to adapt to any ethnic mix -- or lack thereof -- in a place, given an even playing field, no parties having expedient intentions.
The scene perhaps reflected rural Siskiyou county as a whole, so predominantly white that it might've seemed to be -- and not without some justification -- a racist backwater to any minority member visiting from a larger, melting-pot city with its relative mutual racial tolerance and intercultural blending. But probably it wasn't so much ignorant prejudice per se that made the Vista's population of old so white and seemingly unwelcoming to people of color so much as the natural inclination of like-minded ethnic and cultural groups to stick together -- in our case out in the sticks. There was a steep learning curve -- fraught with great potential for suspicion and mutual misunderstanding -- whenever trying to adjust to another ethnicity suddenly sharing one's region.
A more diverse Vista residency from the start might've made for a more culturally rich and thriving development, such as it was. But it was all moot. Wonderbread it was for a half century.
Any development has the need for residents to work together on some level and follow the place's own, and county and state's, given rules in order to keep things safe and pleasant for all -- acid test being one’s children -- who'd committed to hanging their hats there. Otherwise weeds of civic indifference and scofflaw attitudes could spring up, filling the social vacuum and choking a place's livability.
But it could make simple country living all but impossible if ordinances were TOO strict, too expensive and onerous to conform to. As the poet Kahlil Gibran noted on this eternal dance in The Prophet: “You delight in laying down laws / Yet you delight more in breaking them.”
There appeared a fine line between having just enough rules and regulations to keep some semblance of fair-minded order and having too many and courting sure rebellion. In any event, developer Collins would never have gotten the Vista greenlighted if not setting up CC&Rs to reflect every buyer legally agreeing by signing title paperwork to observe all county and state laws and ordinances, plus any of association's own specified restrictions.
But again, the rush of having one’s own land in such a relatively remote region could obscure the reality of there being ANY county or state regulations to conform to. It looked like one could do anything they wanted on their property if there wasn't anyone around to say 'boo'.
“I say we got Trouble...with a capital ‘T’...”
Writer's further experiences
In October 1978, I snapped up a nice level lot with an inspiring mountain view. $1,750., with $250. down and easy terms. I'd get by on it eleven years on kerosene lamps and candles before going solar in 1989.
I set up a quick camp, as it was an early fall. While days were still pleasant, overnight temperatures fell to a bone-chilling 13 degrees F. On my first morning after overnighting on the land, an older man driving by saw me heating coffee water and defrosting myself over a tiny rock-lined campfire in a clearing some 30 feet from the road. He braked, climbed out and stood there pointedly looking at the fire.
“You gotta permit for that?” These were my first welcoming words to the quasi community. They weren't too reassuring.
Fast forward six weeks and I'd apparently waited too long to apply for my building permit -- and crucially, join the POWW water-truck club in lieu of drilling a well. As a result, I got the full "Unwelcome Wagon" treatment from sundry busybodies of a development that seemed hopelessly bent out of shape ever since it slipped away from more idyllic times of uniform building code compliance and had segued into something far less enchanting.
While I'd intended to conform all along, a good part of me being a timid, law-abiding soul even if also having a pronounced contrary streak, I was gearing up slowly and intended to submit formal building plans the next spring. Meanwhile I was researching tiny home designs and construction methods and building codes, and drawing up a tentative design to submit while staying in a not-distant 12-by-16 foot cabin that kindhearted neighbors, leaving for the season and taking pity on me offered to let me, a total stranger, winter in.
This so I wouldn’t freeze to death camping in my tent, as was my initial resolve. I wanted to stay on my brand-new land and future homeland no matter what. Cold alone could be endured with my extreme-weather bedding and jury-rigged wood stove in the tent (not recommended), but unbeknownst to me the region was notorious for sporadic windstorms of unbelievable fury. Coming out of nowhere, they tore through the land like a runaway freight.
December storm assaults kept blowing the tent down no matter how tightly I tried securing it. When it collapsed yet again in the middle of a howling blizzard, snow piling up fast, I finally surrendered. I moved into their now-vacant shelter gratefully, thereafter making the quarter-mile hike each day to work on the place to clear brush, make a road in and build an earth-sheltered storage shed that could became a legal onsite construction shelter once getting a building permit approved.
Ever-vigilant Vista board members and their minions apparently had an inside pipeline to local realtors for everyVista parcel sale made. Almost right away, unknown distant neighbors learned of this rambling upstart, of obviously modest means, apparently daring to sneak into their would-be proper domain. My realtor, as he told me later, admitted to them he'd just sold a lot to a young hippie-type but sportingly refused to divulge which one.
A determined posse, after combing the endless back roads, finally tracked me down when I wasn’t home. They took one look at my thrown-together, mostly underground shed and verboten outhouse and promptly reported me to the county health department. They didn’t know -- or, I suspect, much care-- that I had earnest intentions of starting the onerous legal process of building a home to code come spring.
Scorched-earth policies allowed no wiggle room. It was all black and white.
Duly summoned onto the carpet of head county health department honcho, Dr. Bayuk, I was read the riot act. He gave me 120 days to get compliant by installing a septic system -- even though I wouldn’t have a cabin to connect to it for years -- or he'd kick me off my land. “And don’t think I won’t!”, he added, jowls shaking like Nixon's. He probbly thought I needed an extra dose of fear to get myself properly motivated.
The only reason he accommodated me at all rather than giving me the bum's rush was because at the last moment a kindhearted neighbor had come forward and told him they’d promised to let me join the water truck club, POWW, when I was ready to build.
Being thin-skinned, the whole experience, happening within months of arrival, left me fairly traumatized. Before I finally got into POWW as its last member, plunking down $125. I'd all but given up, feeling devastated and demoralized, gearing up with mortal dread to fade into yet another obscure homeless sunset. Instead, though fondest hopes and dreams mangled, I dully invested the required time and money and determination to get legal and squared away so that I could live on my land with a modicum of salvaged dignity and threadbare peace of mind.
I passed the perc test and dug and installed an approved septic system. By agreement, I built an outhouse over the top of the buried tank for use until completing the approved cabin. In part for the benefit of any who might drive by to check out the latest almost-bust, maybe hoping to find some new reportable offense, I painted on the side facing the road, in bold blue lettering, “Welcome Halley's Comet in 1984.”
That should baffle 'em, I thought. It’d be decades before I'd warm to the board or realize its potential at least to do good for the would-be community.
Over a leisurely three and a half year period I built a code-approved, 1½ story, solar-tempered little-big cabin, hiring help for roofing and electrical. I used only hand tools and scrounged recycled lumber when possible. I appeared on the verge of becoming a tenuously respectable resident -- not that I was any longer keen on being accepted as such. I'd learned firsthand how board members had the aggravating habit of radicalizing the place's denizens in their desperate campaign to try returning the place to its initial universal code compliance. Unfortunately they were so furious, they pursued chronic overreach and rigid law-and-order mindsets, all with insufferable big-frogs-in-small-pond, mega power-freak attitudes.
The place seemed to have gotten caught up in some negative, reactionary spiral without end.
On the wings of getting my place signed off in early 1984, I was still something of a rebellious 33 year-old, now seriously disenchanted with the Vista's dominant, over-genteel atmosphere and no-nonsense code enforcement efforts that turned so many others sour towards the place's politics that people tried their level best to tune them out.
Right away I got into bigger trouble. It seemed I'd decide to celebrate Halley’s Comet return by hosting a rainbow family camp on my land.
The annual national alternative-culture’s rainbow gathering celebration was being held in California for the first time, in an area a two hour drive away in the Warner Mountains wilderness, in the remote northeast corner of the state. A flood of psyched early-comers, some returning for first time in decades to their countercultural roots, came from everywhere. Many had nowhere to go, the public forest site not yet having been determined.
Hoping to be of service while reconnecting with my own roots and maybe liberating the development a bit, I opened up my land to all comers. I tendered the invite by letter to the rainbow steering committee, then holding monthly meetings in far away Chico. Word spread fast. Though never recognized or supported as an official rainbow event (happening on private land), for the next six months hundreds of wired spirits, in colorful, glad-rag garb and sometimes outlandish rigs, traipsed in and out of the still depressingly buttoned down Vista lands. It felt a little like the scene in the animated feature 'Yellow Submarine', when the Beatles' happy music turns the dreary frozen black-and-white world into dazzling technicolor.
Residents, most living many miles away, had a conniption fit. While a few were tickled by it all, maybe rebels at heart who didn't see anything really threatening, most wanted none of it. No free-spirited long-hairs with their pot-smoking, shameless nudity and loud drumming far into the night, no sir. Not in their once-promised land, now going to rack and ruin, thank you very much. One family per parcel; that was a Vista rule etched in stone. Claims of “Hey, we ARE one family” didn't cut much ice.
They reported me to every enforcement agency they could think of: sheriff, county health, planning, building departments, fire marshal, probably the dog catcher... But earlier I’d initiated a meeting between then county sheriff Charlie Byrd and rainbow elders on the land. Law enforcement was keen to know what they could expect with 33,000 rainbow celebrants (as it turned out), soon to flood the wider region. The sheriff, reassured our ragtag group was basically a harmless if outlandish bunch, causing only a temporary glitch in the order of things, must've told frothing neighbors basically to just chill a while, grit their teeth, it'd soon be over. Jaws no doubt dropped.
Writer likes to think the liberated scene helped break the ice of the Vista's oppressive atmosphere a bit, even if at the risk of possibly encouraging anarchy to rule perhaps too much. But it seemed the place naturally swung from one extreme to the other. From first comers' honeymoon period, they giddy over all the possibilities; to ruthless, law-and-order minded "No this, no that, don't even think about it;" to "Whoopee, anything goes!"
Gone 11 months of the year
Their extreme control-freak stance was, again, in part born of initial parcel holders feeling need to post growling signs everywhere to help protect the place and left belongings when living 700 miles away some 11 months of the year. Mischief- and criminally-minded locals, resenting their bogarting the former stomping grounds, had a field day in their long absences...which got visiting owners spitting-nails mad in return. Among other things, the endless miles of ungated, groomed backroads were ideal for dirt bikes making donuts in, too tempting not to succumb to, and thus try reclaiming the place for their continued enjoyment. Or, barring that, for determined hell raising. Locals had geared up into a protracted war with the foreign la-la-landers who'd so rudely appropriated their wilderness. Law enforcement could only do so much with property owners absent so much.
By the time civic-minded lot owners actually did start living on their parcels year-round and joining in with the larger community, enrolling their kids in the local schools and joining PTAs, maybe attending churches, it possibly was too late to substantially reverse such a long-established, vicious circle.
“Permit? We ain’t got no permit...
I don’t need no stinkin’ permit!”
As related, through the ‘80s and ‘90s county health and building ordinances were by and large still being strictly enforced. Unless one didn’t mind being deemed an outlaw and maybe never earning recognition or acceptance as an “official” resident -- in time, more and more didn't seem to mind at all -- most landowners wanting to be residents tried to comply. Or at least provide the illusion of trying. "See here? I started a well; I'm a hundred feet down and waiting on my next paycheck to drill deeper, cut me some slack here, okay?"
But when the Great Recession of 2008-2009 hit, devastating the economy, county supervisors had to make tough decisions. They decided to ax the residential-code enforcer position. It seemed to be having little effect anyhow -- leastwise in the Vista; the place was so far gone by then, it was all but unenforceable.
Over the next half decade, residential-code enforcement basically disappeared. Without any official telling you different, it was easier than ever for Vista newcomers to foster the happy notion they could do anything they wanted on their parcel.
No legal power to fine
Could a place find center without a center?
Other subdivisions forming about same time, to assure having the best chance of creating and keeping a law-abiding residency, gave property-owner boards legal power to levy fines for infractions of agreed-on rules and, if not paid, slap legal liens on culprit's property. Examples: in Lake Shastina, visible clotheslines, solid fencing, and dirt bikes were all verboten; in Shasta Forest one could get fined fifty dollars for changing oil on their own property, even if catching it all for recycling.
No such legal powers ever existed in the Vista.
That had always been the place's two-edged sword. While its relative lack of sometimes nit-picky, overreaching rules and regulations (or enforcement of, anyhow) empowered residents to feel more like lords and ladies of the manor, as it were, such freedom could also attract those with self-interested intent to misuse lands and blatantly disturb the peace and quiet. Example: the place long ago had a monumental junkyard eyesore, surreally surrounded by yet-pristine empty lots; it took the board ages to get the county to condemn it and the place cleaned up.
It basically came down to giving people the freedom to do what they wanted just so long as their actions didn’t interfere with rights of others to do what they wanted. Liberty vs. license. The flip side of liberty was, of course, the obligation to support the rules of law set up to safeguard those freedom rights for the greatest number and hence, greatest good.
The Vista never built a community center. Even though the population grew enough to merit one, there was never enough community support for such a facility, a place where residents and visiting members could meet, get to know each other in a relaxed setting, form informal volunteer action groups like litter patrol and community gardens, maybe hold swap meets.
Instead, monthly board meetings were, as related, held in a cramped, cold-fluorescent-lit backroom in the volunteer firehouse on Juniper Drive, just beyond Vista boundaries. And annual property owner meetings were held miles away in Lake Shastina. (In earliest years they were held hundreds of miles south, at places like many members’ then favorite, the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, to make it easier for the dominant southern California ownership to attend.) It was hard for a quasi community to ever gain any sense of centeredness without a center. Driving ten miles away from a place to attend its annual meeting felt too weird for words.
“Wouldn’t give you a dime…” vs. “Only $29,999!”
As related, due to the place’s countless shortcomings, sale values of parcels mostly stalled for decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. Until 2015, unimproved two-to-three acre lots often went begging at $5,000. Lacking easier water, septic systems and electricity, and a more can-do, fair-minded, empowered board and more appropriate CC&Rs, the place fairly shouted, "Beware, failed subdivision!"
It didn’t strike many as an inviting place at all to drop anchor. Only those enjoying roughing it for a while and relishing the novelty of having their own piece of California land. Or those determined to live on the cheap for long-term and who wouldn't lose a bit of sleep for being non-compliant, "Screw the system" their motto. Or those renting houses from code-compliant owners who'd moved away.
Long ago I met a former realtor who said of the properties with a bitter disdain apparently then common in property hawking circles, “I wouldn’t give you a dime for any of them!” He said with such vehemence, it made one wonder if possibly he or his colleagues had skirted ugly, protracted lawsuits over misrepresentation of Vista parcels' livability, or endured some other such unpleasantness that wasn't worth it for such a paltry commission fee.
Two realtor groups who specialized in scouting developments deemed undervalued clearly thought differently. In the late aughts they snapped up hundreds of the bedeviled hinterland's parcels that had so long lay fallow (at least relieving many long-stuck parcel owners). They promptly mounted slick sales campaigns to try to remedy the woefully under-exploited situation...and hopefully make a mint in the process for helpful services rendered.
The earlier outfit, hiring former CHiPs TV star Erik Estrada as aggressive pitchman, had a penchant for going after failed, “left-for-dead” subdivisions, sharp talons squeezing out any easy quick profit possible before swooping off to next rural developmental roadkill. In ad promos he'd enthuse how he even owned a parcel here. (Of course, it was part of his deal, being given one just so he could truthfully say that.) The outfit offered to fly prospective buyers in to enjoy a champagne brunch along with a high-pitch tour of the properties with dazzling mountain views. When they held a grand open-house, balloons festooning entrance, reportedly no one showed.
A few years later, around 2012, Billyland realtors -- possibly taking lots off the former’s hands -- likewise grabbed a mess of raw Vista parcels. They in turn seemed to aim at land-hungry Internet surfers. They'd hawk parcels online Ebay auction style, 'winner' the one having made the highest down-payment bid when the timer ran out. “Only $29,999!” they gushed. (With low monthly payments and high interest rate, the final cost could run over $50,000.) Their campaign attracted many living on a shoestring, some soon to grow a few cannabis plants, no doubt in part to make land payments and so avoid losing what some legal residents, perhaps uncharitably, viewed as little more than private campgrounds for the homeless.
By 2015, according to county records there were some 84 legally permitted residences. Out of 1640 parcels, that was one in twenty. The rest -- some 1556, or 95% of the two-and-a-half acres parcels -- were either technically illegally lived on, once lived on as such and since vacated, or still pretty much as raw as the day the place was born.
“Maybe if we ignore them they’ll go away.”
It was no great secret county supervisors rued the day they ever greenlighted the development. One former Vista board president stalwart who often worked with county officials said they came to view the Vista as the red-headed stepchild that no one knew what to do with.
Meanwhile, the place, having no fining power, was -- short of extra-legal vigilante efforts -- totally at the mercy of county officials and enforcers to keep intact some remaining shreds of law and order.
But the huge, mostly rural county, on an overstretched budget and forever understaffed, had long ago burned out trying to deal with the forsaken realm. Responsible enforcement and policy-making parties grew numb to the perpetual thorn in their side. They tried to forget legal residents paid their salaries through their annual property taxes and not unreasonably expected them to earn their keep.
Despite (or because of) non-code-compliant residents growing greater in number and bolder and more scofflaw, seeds of lawlessness sprouting like weeds in radically changing times, they still wouldn't respond, short of some major incident. They knew a lost cause when they saw one. County officials kept kicking the can down the road, as if on automatic pilot, determined to avoid dealing with the misbegotten place whenever humanly possible...
...until the day of reckoning came. In spring 2015, it popped up out of nowhere like a giant jack-in-the-box, seemingly catching everyone flatfooted, asleep at the switch, out to lunch... "No one could've predicted such a thing ever happening," one official opined, head firmly in the sand. Sudious ignoring of the development's plight -- no doubt born of being a rural county too poor to enforce its own regulations -- had been long careening on a collision course with reality...
...until such determined avoidance proved to be something of an unwarranted luxury.
It's said the cause of anything is everything, and the cause of everything is anything. It's perhaps over-simplistic to try to pin the blame for what happened to the realm on any one party or parties.
There were a daunting combination of cascading factors at play. It was a limited-ambition development, lacking vital infrastructure to evolve as a standard community. There was surrounding locals' abiding resentment of the place ever being developed. Add in the indifferent absentee owners with buyer remorse not wanting to invest further in the place; the firebrand owner boards reacting to the epidemic of scofflaw residents living illegally on their lots; expedient-minded realtors; uninvolved association managers; county officials shirking their duty...
Is it any wonder the place was in dire straits?
All led the Vista being the way it is was -- and is now, ages later: a former shared recreational land that futilely tried to become something more despite the cards being stacked against it from the very start...
...and, people being people and the Vista being the Vista, is still trying to, any way it can.