The distance between Point Conception and Eastern Canada may have just gotten a little closer. While armchair environmentalists throughout the South Coast continue to speculate about what exactly the new owners of Cojo-Jalama Ranch, commonly known as Bixby Ranch, have in store for the historic and sprawling 25,000-acre agricultural compound, word is making its way from Canada about a highly controversial mega-quarry project being proposed on an equally stunning expanse of beloved farmland north of Toronto.
What does one have to do with the other, you ask? Well, the folks looking to build the quarry, Highland Companies, and Coastal Management Resources (CMR), the people who have owned Bixby since 2007, are subsidiaries of the same Boston-based $23-billion hedge fund, the Baupost Group. Interesting but not necessarily damning in and of itself, the trouble about the commonality, according to Gaviota Coast Conservancy head Mike Lunsford, who has been following the story of Highland’s proposed Melancthon Quarry since last summer, is in the details. “I think the deceptive practices demonstrated [in Canada] show that Baupost is all about profit and doesn’t really care about community. [Based on what we have seen already with Coastal Management], I fear that that culture has been brought here.”
At first blush, the connection seems to be little more than a passing formality. After all, Baupost is a massive hedge fund, the 11th largest in the world, and it throws its money around in all variety of ventures. Then, of course, there is the fact that the high-quality limestone that Highland hopes to harvest in Canada likely doesn’t exist around these parts. However, once you start talking to people who stand to be most immediately impacted by Melancthon’s mega-quarry — most of whom are small- to medium-scale lifelong potato farmers — and get the background on what has happened in the time since Baupost first came to their neck of the woods five years ago and this past spring when Highland announced its plans to tear up some 2,300 acres of prime ag land and build the largest quarry in Canadian history, you begin to get an idea about what has Lunsford worried.
In short, to hear folks like Carl Cosack tell it (a cattle rancher in the area near the proposed quarry and one of the driving forces behind the group trying to stop it, the North Dufferin Agricultural and Community Task Force), what was initially sold to neighbors and prospective land-sellers as a fairly straightforward and fiscally enticing effort by an outside company to buy up old farms and continue their operations has turned into a potential environmental nightmare. As per the application, the quarry would require Highland to drill down roughly 200 feet beneath an aquifer (and pump 600 million liters from it a day) that not only feeds five separate river systems in southern Ontario but also provides drinking water every day for more than 2 million greater Toronto residents.“When they started out here, in all their interviews and dealings with local folks, they just went with the story that was easiest to swallow: that they wanted to be potato farmers,” recalls Cosack. “That deception has not served them well. It was all a master plan, and we are onto them.”
According to Cosack, starting in 2006, Highland eventually bought some 8,300 acres of farmland and, in the process, became Ontario’s largest potato grower and distributor. However, along the way, it also worked to demolish dozens of old homes and barns on its newly acquired lands and began drilling test wells throughout the potato fields — two things that set off alarm bells for Cosack and others about the company’s claimed commitment to a future in farming. That doubt was confirmed in the worst way possible in March, when Highland dropped a 3,000-page application for the monstrous Melancthon project, which, if it becomes a reality, would be dwarfed in size by only one other quarry on the entire continent, a facility in Michigan. (It is worth noting that the community-at-large in Ontario has rallied against the plan in recent months, including a 25,000-person-strong demonstration festival in October, and as a result, the project is up for an unprecedented round of environmental review.)
It is this type of bait-and-switch tactic that has Lunsford concerned. Ever since paying some $136 million for Cojo-Jalama back in 2007, various spokespeople for CMR have publicly pledged allegiance to maintaining the ranch’s historic cattle operations and dry farming. However, there have also been ample instances of behavior to the contrary. Things such as a quiet effort to secure large amounts of state water rights from the Carpinteria Valley Water District and alleged illegal landscaping of a coastal terrace on the property about a year ago that resulted in the destruction of federally designated critical habitat for the endangered Gaviota tarplant only work to fuel skepticism by those who fear development dreams will soon replace the ranching realities at Cojo-Jalama. (The tarplant remains under investigation by both the California Coastal Commission and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.)
For their part, CMR Executive Vice President Carl Steinberg explained this week that his company knows little about the situation in Canada, adding that “to [their] knowledge there is no limestone in the area of Point Conception.” As for the landscaping allegations and associated investigation, Steinberg said simply that talks with the Coastal Commission were “ongoing” and that he was “hopeful for a mutually acceptable resolution that supports ranch and farm operations and the protection of coastal resources.”