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NEIGHBOR AGAINST NEIGHBOR

Laura Slade still doesn't have an in-house bathroom, but she finally has electricity. And running water. The inconvenience of having to use her neighbor's "facilities" is a small nuisance to the 38-year-old woman who will tell you how proud she is of her mobile home and her five-acre homestead out in the middle of nowhere. She bought the remote property in the shadow of the Estrella Mountains in May 1986, paying her last dime to finance her dream of a quiet, peaceful place in the desert away from the city's noise and ugliness. She camped outside for three years until she could afford a mobile home. Only recently was she able to pay for extending utility lines to her property. "I broke my back working for the money to pay for it. I saved and scrimped like crazy," she remembers.

She's not the only one. Her new neighbors, Nelson and Renee Fields, spent $20,000 in the last two years to extend utilities, drill a well and build a septic system for their mobile home. The hardship and expense were the price, they say, for the harmony of this special spot in the southwest part of the county, where an easy living can be had on a shoestring budget.

But harmony is hardly the mood around 143rd Avenue these days. Instead, Laura Slade and the Fieldses and a half-dozen others are feeling the wrath of a local real estate agent and upscale neighbors, who are hell-bent on throwing them and their mobile homes off the land. The home-and-garden people who live in lavish houses on the other side of the mountain have teamed up with Maricopa County officials to get rid of this "eyesore."

County officials say even though these folks own their property, they have no right to live on it in mobile homes. The only way to get the county and the complainants off their backs, is to build single-family homes--a financial burden that's out of the question, to say nothing about how this rankles their idea of freedom.

But none of those arguments has moved either the complainants, who say they're trying to protect property values, or the bureaucrats, who say they are "just following the law."

The law in this case seems to be on both sides. There's the "farm exemption" law that Slade and her neighbors got when they settled here in the first place. County officials used to sign those exemptions almost routinely, saying it was perfectly okay for these people to move a mobile home onto their property. The Fieldses, for instance, got their approval in October of 1988, then got the county's approval for all their improvements. Exactly a year later, they were notified they had only two weeks to move the mobile home because of a new policy on farm exemptions. That policy says mobile homes are not okay unless the owners derive two thirds of their income from agriculture. The two horses the Fieldses keep on their land apparently don't count. And Slade never has made any of her income on her homestead. She puts meat on the table by hawking old jewelry and Indian trinkets at swap meets and garage sales. She doesn't make much money, but, as she says, she doesn't eat much either.

The fight started when the single-family-home neighbors started filling the files in the county's planning office with complaints that Slade and her friends had both junk and "illegal mobile homes" on their property. The planners agreed, citing the new policy, and turned the cases over to the County Attorney's Office, demanding these people be prosecuted unless they move the mobile homes. The whole scenario mystifies the mobile-home people, who say they just want to be left alone and can't understand the county's change of mind. And when they recently discovered they're the only ones in the county being prosecuted for this "offense," they got mad.

"They're hurting us," Laura Slade says. "If they have their way, we'd all be homeless."

One of her neighbors is more blunt: "Do we have to take this kind of harasssment just because they don't like the way we live," asks Odean Willand.

JOEL AND PEGGY LATHAM spent considerable time compiling their complaints about the mobile-home community three miles and over the mountain from their posh home. They took photos, looked up records, studied the law and eventually lodged twelve separate complaints to zoning officials.

The Lathams built their quasi-subterranean dream home a few years back. It was written up in the local weekly as a unique piece of desert architecture. They say they were well-aware that the mobile homes were there when they started to build, but thought they were just temporary. When they discovered people planned to live there permanently, they began organizing their complaint files.

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J. W. Casserly