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Olive trees? Yeah, right!

| The key to one of Sherlock Holmes' more famous cases was the dog that didn't bark. Farther east in the Coachella Valley, we have cases of the hot-air balloons that don't soar. In the early morning hours it used to be quite usual to see a dozen or more balloons drifting languidly above the valley, but no more thanks to a spate of lawsuits filed against the balloonists by the owners of an olive ranch near Indio.

The Oasis Ranch is owned by John C and Carol Marrelli, doing business as JCM Farming. They also run a full-employment program for lawyers: since 2000 they have filed 22 lawsuits in state and federal court. The latest round of suits targeted hot-air balloon companies, alleging that they flew too low over their property, invaded their privacy and that of their workers, and presented a safety hazard. All but two of the companies have either knuckled under to the ranch's demands not to fly over the property or have gone out of business.

Earlier this year the owners of the ranch hired a publicist to help them counter all the bad publicity that has redounded from their litigiousness. Says, the publicist, "[After I was hired] I find out they're a perfectly normal family, with a perfectly normal ranch" (Desert Sun, 5-Feb-2011).

Right. A "perfectly normal family" has an entrance gate that looks like this:

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Normal as normal can be... (Photo: Desert Sun)

And a "perfectly normal ranch" is surrounded by a wall 24 feet high and 4 feet thick with what look like guard towers at each corner:

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Yup, just a "normal ranch" (Photo: Desert Sun, from a court filing)

This is recent construction. Compare with this image from Google Earth dated 2005:

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None of the other mapping sites that I checked have a more recent view

They, the owners (plaintiffs), tried to get a gag order imposed on the case — denied — and have also filed suit against the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood among others. Last week the judge in the case ruled that the balloonists have the right to inspect the farm. The plaintiffs object, strenuously.

The company website (missionsantarosa.com) claims that the ranch was built to "celebrate" olives and provide an "ideal setting" for "family and friends" to visit:

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Perhaps they expect that all these old and new friends and family will arrive via the helipad they want to construct, thereby avoiding the hospitable signs at the gate: "armed response, guard dogs, and no exit."

The question on everyone's mind is, obviously, "What are they doing inside that compound?" To hear the spokeswoman tell it, they're just growing olives, pressing oil, and holding business meetings. They describe their compound as a "Napa Valley-style working ranch built in the mission tradition." It's been a while since I've visited the Napa Valley, but the last time I was there I didn't see a single winery with 24-ft high, 4-ft thick walls, armed response, and guard dogs.

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Consider this story the next time you shop for olive oil

In Napa Valley, the signs are more likely to look like the one right. They invite you to come in, take a look around, sample some of the product, and hopefully buy a case or two.

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I'm reminded of the most recent case of a large building inside a compound with a high wall with a secretive occupant...

The Oasis Ranch just doesn't pass the smell test. Those walls are not just to protect trade secrets and patents. Is this another of Dick Cheney's "undisclosed locations"? A CIA/FBI safe house? Headquarters of a Mexican drug lord? Gitmo II? Inquiring minds want to know...

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018

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