By City News Service
The owners of a mysterious, fortified olive farm near Indio have used lawsuits and other legal intimidation tactics to virtually shut down the Coachella Valley's once-thriving hot air balloon industry, it was reported Tuesday. Court records indicate that the company is based in Solana Beach.
JCM Farming Inc. has sued 14 hot air balloon companies, charging them with violating property rights by flying low over its high-security compound near Jackson Street at Avenue 54. An airplane services company was also sued because its plane — dropping sterile insects under contract for the U.S. Department of Agriculture — flew too low over the orchard.
The Desert Sun newspaper reported that the Federal Aviation Administration has twice investigated the farm's complaints, and twice found that the balloons were not violating aviation law.
But the hardball legal tactics have caused 13 small hot air balloon companies to either go out of business, receive default court orders not to fly in the area because they did not challenge the suit, or promise not to fly balloons in the Coachella Valley. One Riverside County balloon owner has declared bankruptcy after spending $130,000 to fight the farm's lawsuit.
"I know we haven't done anything wrong or illegal.'' said Magical Adventure Balloon Rides owner Dennis Barrett to the newspaper. "Even so, I have spent over $130,000 on legal fees to date and I haven't had my day in court yet."
JCM Farming has also threatened to sue advertisers who formerly paid the balloon companies for signage, and even threatened suit against neighboring landowners if they allowed balloons to land near the farm.
The legal barrage has virtually ended hot air balloon flights in the Palm Springs resort area, a onetime major tourist attraction where it was not uncommon to see as many as 20 colorful balloons aloft on calm winter days, the Desert Sun reported.
JCM Farming's compound is an 80-acre olive field in the fields southwest of Indio, surrounded by a 24-foot-high, four-foot-thick security wall. Guard turret-like structures, possibly ornamental, sit at the corners of the plot, and signs warn of an armed response with no exit, the Desert Sun reported.
Court records indicate that the company was owned, at one time, by spouses John C. Marrelli and Carol Marrelli and their daughter, Mailena, the Daily Sun reported. The father has apparently died in recent years.
No employee there would speak to the newspaper. The company's attorney, Andrew Rauch, told the newspaper that the balloons "are breaking the law. They're violating our property rights. They're creating a danger."
The farm has also filed 10 lawsuits since 2000 over such alleged offenses as a neighbor's barking dog, contractors who helped build the walled compound, and defamation against a one-time contractor who criticized the outfit.
In those lawsuits, JCM Farming has described the compound as a place "to provide a secure meeting place and retreat for VIPs, dignitary (sic) and other notable individuals and/or the companies they represent," according to court documents reviewed by the Daily Sun.
"The Project also provides a secure location for JCM to conduct research and development of a highly confidential nature, for which numerous patents have been applied for, are pending, and have been granted," JCM Farms said in a court document.
Its attorney, Rauch, would not tell the newspaper what type of research is conducted there, other than to say the activity complies with agricultural zoning rules.
But he complained that the low-flying balloons allowed passengers to look into the private area. "It's like a guy standing on top of your fence with a pair of binoculars and a camera looking at you."
The company has also complained about the noise from balloon's air heaters, and says the flights should be eliminated because the airspace near Indio has become congested. But that has not stopped JCM Farms from applying for a permit for a private helipad, the paper reported.