Feuding With the Locks

Effort to keep low profile didn't work

The San Diego Union-Tribune/March, 1995
By Gordon Smith - Staff Writer

When the Fellowship of Friends chose the foothills of Yuba County for its home back in 1971, "we thought we could come up here and disappear," one of the group's leaders, Girard Haven, said not long ago.

Members not only focused on inward-looking spiritual work, but were actively encouraged not to socialize with "outsiders," according to many people formerly in the group.

As Haven noted, however, the effort to maintain a low profile didn't succeed. The Fellowship's wine making, its art collecting, its esoteric religious beliefs and its mostly middle and upper-middle-class members all stand out in Yuba County, a blue-collar agricultural area whose median per-capita income is one of the lowest in the state.

Many locals were suspicious of a group that quickly became one of the largest property owners in the area yet kept to itself, said former county Supervisor John Mistler.

Some still are. There have been numerous complaints that the relatively affluent Fellowship has received kid-glove treatment from Yuba County officials on building permits and various kinds of code enforcement

The most vitriolic accusations come from the Olivehurst Gospel Assembly (OGA), a small group of fundamentalist, antigovernment Christians that lost a 107-acre ranch to Fellowship members in an access dispute in 1993.

Interviewed recently in a sparsely furnished office while guarded by an enormous Rottweiler named Buck, several OGA members accused the Fellowship and county officials of conspiring to cover up murders and child sexual abuse, as well as arranging for selective enforcement of building and health codes.

Far-fetched as some of these complaints sound, they helped bring about a grand jury investigation of the Yuba County Building and Planning Department last year.

That investigation blamed department director Larry Brooks for failing to control illegal building and building use, applying some regulations inconsistently and obstructing the grand jury's inquiry, among other things.

Brooks sued the grand jury for defamation and libel, and was fired by the County Board of Supervisors in October. He is considering further legal action.

Nevertheless, an inspection by the Yuba County Environmental Health Department in December discovered serious code violations at the Fellowship's "lodge," where members ate.

The violations included an unauthorized second story, open wiring and bare earth exposed through the floor, according to Carol Fitzgerald, a county environmental health specialist. The lodge was closed.

Cynthia Hill, the Fellowship's director of public relations, said the group's architects will work with county officials to resolve the issue.

President Kristina Nielsen added that the Fellowship is making a deliberate effort these days to reach out into the community that surrounds it.

"We don't have an isolationist attitude," she insisted.

The 600 members who live on or near the group's 1,300-acre property patronize local stores, and some have built houses and started businesses, she pointed out.

We've upscaled the area," Nielsen said.

The group's small restaurant is open to the public. So are its winery and its small museum of antique Chinese furniture, albeit by appointment only.

An orchestra and chorus from the group performed at a church in Sacramento last month, and its collection of antique Chinese furniture is scheduled to be displayed at the Pacific Heritage Museum in San Francisco for nine months beginning April 20.

"We wish to be more attentive to relations with the community," said Nielsen.


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