Redwood forest owned by “King Tut of Hoarders” in Santa Cruz Mountains begins new chapter

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Sitting on the eastern edge of Big Basin Redwoods State park along Highway 236 in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the property should have been a gateway to one of California’s most storied, scenic and popular redwood parks.

But for decades it was a gateway to squalor. More than 50 junk cars, along with old school buses, boats, rusting engine parts, tires and mountains of other debris choked the 153-acre wooded landscape.

The property’s owner, a Stanford-trained electrical engineer and eccentric inventor from Menlo Park named Roy Kaylor, was so obsessive about never throwing anything away that in 2011 he and his ramshackle forest were featured on an episode of the national TV show “Hoarders.”

“It was amazing,” said Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson. “This guy was the King Tut of hoarders.”

But now, after a 13-year battle with Santa Cruz County officials over the mess, the property has finally been cleaned up and is ready for a new beginning.

A Bay Area environmental group, the Sempervirens Fund, based in Los Altos, has signed a deal to purchase the property for $2.4 million.

The group, which has preserved redwood forests in the Santa Cruz Mountains since 1900, is in discussions with state parks officials about transferring the property to expand Big Basin.

“I think it’s really a tale of hope. If you go on to the property now, it looks great,” said Sara Barth, the group’s executive director. “The debris, all of the cars, it’s all been cleaned out.”

Barth said the property has the potential to become the site of a campground as Big Basin is rebuilt from the devastating 2020 CZU Lightning Fire. Although nearly all of the park’s massive redwoods survived — albeit with black scorches on some of their bark — that fire, started by lightning, destroyed nearly all of the buildings, campgrounds and other facilities at Big Basin, most of which remains closed to the public.

Kaylor is now 83 and has moved to Klamath Falls, Oregon.

“I would characterize it as kind of a happy ending,” Kaylor said Monday. “I lost a lot of money. I had antique cars, race cars, that kind of thing that I lost. I got no return on the investments in the collections of things that I had. But if it becomes part of Big Basin State Park, I can live with that.”

With gray pony tail, bushy beard and flannel shirts, Kaylor for years has looked like a Santa Cruz Mountain man right out of central casting.

But he also has a long history in Silicon Valley as an inventor and offbeat electronics engineer.

Kaylor graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1961 and a master’s degree in physical science in 1964, university officials confirmed.

He spent decades working on a wide variety of electronics pursuits, from battery technologies to power systems to tube amplifiers, for a while as an employee of Philco-Ford but often as a contractor, sometimes under the company he set up in 1959, Kaylor Energy Systems, in Menlo Park.

In the 1970s, Kaylor hand-built custom electric cars. He has claimed to have designed the prototype of the Toyota Prius, but Toyota has said it has no record of that. He also has said the power system on NASA’s Voyager spacecraft came from his designs.

His penchant for taking things apart and endlessly fiddling with circuits and transistors and batteries eventually got him in trouble. Although he owned a house in Menlo Park, Kaylor bought the redwood property in 1984.

Over the years he began moving dozens of vehicles there. Many had broken windows, were missing parts and were rusted, with soaked interiors from rain storms. He added broken bicycles, wrecked motorcycles, old toilets, buckets, mildewed toys and clothes, even a dilapidated San Francisco muni bus.

In 2006, the Santa Cruz County Planning Department ordered him to clean up the property. He refused.

By 2010, the county took the case to court, accusing him of creating a public nuisance and health hazard. County officials said liquids from the vehicles, acid from batteries and other materials were causing pollution. Shady characters were coming and going, sometimes dumping debris, they said.

“Going to court is time consuming and expensive,”  said Jason Hoppin, a Santa Cruz County spokesman. “We would prefer not to do that. But this was an extraordinary case. It was attracting nuisances. People were living on the property, selling illegal drugs, the sheriff said.”

The Sempervirens Fund, a non-profit group based in Los Altos, is purchasing a 153-acre property on the eastern boundary of Big Basin Redwoods State Park for $2.4 million. The property, once covered with junk cars and other debris and featured on the TV show “Hoarders” in 2011, is now cleaned up. (Photo: Jordan Plotsky, Sempervirens Fund) 

Kaylor said he needed all the vehicles to tinker with for his inventions.

“I did not consider myself a hoarder,” Kaylor said. “I was maintaining it for more noble purposes.”

Minutes later, he added: “I can’t prove it, but I think the county was tapping my phone line.”

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