One man’s illegal land use is another man’s perfectly legal soil-tilling. At least that is what Santa Barbara County officials are saying this week after investigating allegations of unpermitted landscaping on the coastal mesas of the Bixby-Jalama Ranch. Gaviota Coast Conservancy and other concerned neighbors had expressed fear that large swaths of soil-tilling conducted late last year on the property might be the precursor to big-time development dreams.
But according to County Planning and Development’s Steve Mason, after researching historical photographs of the sprawling ranch at the western end of the Gaviota Coast and meeting one-on-one with the representatives for the property’s new ownership, the county has concluded that the cultivating was, in fact, well within the mandates of county code. “The work that was done out there was not a violation of any county rules or policies,” explained Mason this week. “Basically, they told us they are just trying to rehabilitate the land for better grazing and that the area was being prepared for reseeding.”
Interestingly enough, even as the county closed the books on any possible enforcement actions at Bixby in regard to the tilling — which, technically, Mason said, was “disking” and not actually tilling, thus the amount of soil disturbed was only the top three inches of soil — representatives from the California Coastal Commission and the Department of Fish and Game both indicated this week that they are still investigating the situation as it appears much of the impacted acreage was critical habitat for Gaviota tarplant, a federally protected species.
Clearly frustrated by the county’s conclusion, Gaviota Coast Conservancy head Mike Lunsford, who first reported the controversial dirt moves earlier this year, drew a direct line between the county’s findings and their recent power struggle with the Coastal Commission regarding some outdated land-use development codes. “I am very disappointed, but not surprised by County Counsel’s conclusion,” said Lunsford. “This case proves that under today’s circumstances of investor/developer-owned ag land, the exemption for agricultural in the Coastal Zoning Ordinance is a gaping policy hole … Is it just alleging an activity is for agriculture that qualifies a person for the exemption?”
For her part, 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose constituency includes the 25,000-acre Bixby Ranch, opined this week that after meeting with folks from the Bixby, she believes the new ownership — an investment firm from the northeast that forked over $136 million four years ago for the property — is, at least for the time being, committed to keeping the property in ranching and farming. “They indicated to me that they are simply looking to maximize the agricultural potential of the property … And I feel confident that our staff has thoroughly evaluated the situation,” said Farr, though she did add that the dirt clearing was, at least in certain spots, demonstrative of an area in county policy that needs to be “tightened up.” Specifically, some of the worked-over land was on a mesa that was federally ordered several years ago to be rehabilitated after Unocal used it for oil drilling operations. Essentially, the disking, though technically legal in the county’s eyes, erased the benefits of that restoration work.
Despite the rulings, Lunsford and company — pointing to Bixby’s slow-moving plans to buy State Water rights from Carpinteria Valley Water District, the fact that the landscaping in question took place at a time of year when nature would have been seeding the soil on its own, and rumors that Bixby did not actively go to market for any new bulls this season — remain skeptical about the ownership’s commitment to the ranching ways of old. After all, as Lunsford summed up cryptically, “It can generally be said that the day of farmers buying land on the Gaviota Coast is over.”