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<b>GOOD DEED PUNISHED?</b>  When Sonia Wisniewska agreed to let the County of Santa Barbara use some of her land to help the tiger salamander, she never envisioned the mess that would transpire. Today, the county is relying on the power of eminent domain to finalize the deal, which Wisniewska sees as the worst possible outcome.

Paul Wellman

GOOD DEED PUNISHED? When Sonia Wisniewska agreed to let the County of Santa Barbara use some of her land to help the tiger salamander, she never envisioned the mess that would transpire. Today, the county is relying on the power of eminent domain to finalize the deal, which Wisniewska sees as the worst possible outcome.


Conservationist’s Lompoc Land Deal Goes Awry

County Sees Eminent Domain as Only Option in Tiger Salamander Habitat Case


Thursday, October 3, 2013
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Eight years ago, the County of Santa Barbara accepted responsibility for killing two tiger salamanders, a federally protected species that lives in rural ponds and vernal pools, and the wheels of bureaucracy have been slowly grinding ever since to make things right. But along the way, the woman who tried to save the county from the expensive wrath of federal wildlife officials says she’s been most thoroughly wronged and is dismayed that the county is now blaming her for the need to unleash its powers of eminent domain — the government’s right to take private property for public use — to finalize the deal.

“This could have been handled with the feathered touch of diplomacy,” explained Sonia Wisniewska, formerly Anderson, who let the county create habitat and a conservation easement for the rare creature on 16 acres of her ranch near Lompoc, in hopes of showing her regulation-fearing North County neighbors they could work with the government toward mutually beneficial results. “Instead, they came out with the A-bomb,” she said.

The specifics of the real-estate transactions that led to today’s situation are tremendously complicated, and there are fundamental disagreements about who should have done what and when. But everyone agrees that the “A-bomb” of eminent domain is a last resort, especially in an agricultural region where worries about further regulations are already explosive.

“This is not the county’s preferred route. It is the only option.”

“Had there been an easy and straightforward way of doing this, like sitting down and signing some paperwork, the county would have done so,” explained Renée Bahl, the county’s assistant CEO, who clarified that the move is to simply record the easement, not acquire the land itself. “This is not the county’s preferred route. It is the only option.” Even ultra-conservative Supervisor Peter Adam, whose 4th District includes the property in question, has accepted that this is the only way to record the conservation easement. As he explained during the May 21 hearing that kicked off the eminent-domain process, “We may be in a box that we can’t get out of.”

Liens and Contracts and Loans — Oh My!

With tiger salamander blood on their hands and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife breathing down their necks, County of Santa Barbara officials spent years trying to find a property that was suitable for creating salamander habitat. Wisniewska’s remote property ​— a 160-acre ranch located three miles up Gypsy Canyon amid the Sta. Rita Hills wine grape appellation ​— ​offered an attractive solution. “I bought the land in a critical habitat zone because I am a conservationist,” she explained. “It is my goal to put land into conservation.” So in 2010, the county paid her $240,000 for the deal, began setting up the new ponds, and asked Wisniewska to get the other lienholders ​— ​then, Wells Fargo and Santa Barbara Bank & Trust (SBB&T) ​— ​to agree to the easement.

“You have a legal team, and you have real-estate experts who work for you, and you’re gonna leave it up to some random individual to go out and protect your interest?” asked Haugan. “That, to me, is absolutely silly.”

That’s where things got a little messy. The county says that only Wisniewska would have been able to get the lenders to approve the easement because she was the one who had the loans. But Wisniewska and her supporters ​— ​including her friend, Robert Haugan, the attorney who now owns the property after buying her out ​— ​find that arrangement to be suspect, and they wonder why the county would have cut the check without finalizing the deal. “You have a legal team, and you have real-estate experts who work for you, and you’re gonna leave it up to some random individual to go out and protect your interest?” asked Haugan. “That, to me, is absolutely silly.”

Regardless, Wisniewska believes that she did present the county with all of the paperwork and signatures required to seal the deal but that the county’s real-estate agents moved as “slow as molasses on a cold, wintry day” and “bumbled the transaction” by producing a “flawed document.” At the last minute, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, which was to hold the easement, dropped out of the picture when Wells Fargo wouldn’t pay for further review of the contract. But with federal officials losing patience, the county needed to finalize the transaction anyway, so they added a two-year window to get the lenders on board and paid Wisniewska. At that point, she claims that county officials told her not to worry about the easement agreement and that they ​— ​none of whom are still employed by the county, incidentally ​— ​would handle it.

Wisniewska didn’t worry until a couple of years later when she went through a divorce and fell on hard times. By summer 2012, the banks were ready to foreclose on the ranch, and Wisniewska realized they would be doing so without the conservation easement in place. So to protect the deal and stall foreclosure, she made the only move left. “I threw myself into the flames and filed for bankruptcy,” said Wisniewska.

The county is not admitting any mistakes, but Bahl agreed that the whole deal was “unusual” and a “bit of an anomaly.” She explained, “This was the only land they could come up with, and the county knew there were risks associated with it.”

Who’s Holding the Bag Now?

Today, though Wisniewska still lives on the property, it is officially owned by Wells Fargo and Haugan, who bailed her out and also acquired the liens once owned by SBB&T. When the county hit Haugan with the eminent-domain plans earlier this year, he foreclosed on the property without the conservation easement in place. But Wisniewska believes that, even now, the county could get the easement recorded if they just reached out to Haugan and Wells Fargo rather than pursuing the controversial and expensive steps required of eminent domain. The county’s Los Angeles–based eminent-domain attorney, Duff Murphy, did not think that was possible. “If they say they are ready to subordinate,” said Murphy, “have them give me a call.”

Haugan would be happy to do so, though he’d want to be compensated, and there seems to be a wide gap between what he wants (he proposed $175,000 as a starting point, figuring that would get chopped down) and what the county will pay (Haugan heard that they were thinking more like $40,000). Wells Fargo’s position is unknown, as a call to the bank’s attorney Glenn Wechsler was not returned, and attempts to get a response from anyone associated with this property inside the bank were unsuccessful. But mortgage experts contacted for this article questioned why a bank would ever agree to a conservation easement that devalues an already highly leveraged property, especially back in the comparably cash-strapped times of 2010.

“We already purchased the conservation easement,” said Bahl. “We are securing the investment we made.”

No matter what, Haugan believes that negotiating would be smarter, more predictable, and, ultimately for taxpayers, a cheaper move than the risks and legal costs associated with eminent domain, in which a judge will decide the final outcome. Among other findings, that judge will have to decide whether this is a new deal, which would require the county to pay again in full, or merely the end of the first deal, which would mean less of a payout. That’s what the county is betting on. “We already purchased the conservation easement,” said Bahl. “We are securing the investment we made.”

Currently, the eminent-domain case is set for its first hearing in November, at which point Wisniewska’s dream of showing farmers and ranchers how easy it would be to save the tiger salamander with government help will be over. Instead, their fears about regulators coming in and forcibly taking land will be confirmed. “This is going to perpetuate that negative perception, and that upsets me,” said Wisniewska. “I wanted to set an example for my neighbors that, instead of destroying this habitat, they should nurture it. Instead, the county is making everyone’s worst nightmare come true.”

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“Had there been an easy and straightforward way of doing this, like sitting down and signing some paperwork, the County would have done so,” explained Renée Bahl, the county’s assistant CEO, who clarified that the move is to simply record the easement, not acquire the land itself. “This is not the county’s preferred route. It is the only option.”

Wow Renee Bahl!!! Signing a standard subordination agreement is an "easy and straightforward way of doing this". "Sitting down and signing some paperwork" was exactly what the county could have, should have and can still do. The County boasts the largest legal team of any county in the State and they can't close a simple real estate transaction without turning it into a cluster bomb? Oh sure, Eminent Domain is a great solution. So is cutting of your nose to spite your face. Sadly, the County decides to spend more taxpayer dollars paying private counsel to handle this form them and all of us know what his motivation is. Racking up fees! What happened to that huge legal department at the County that manufactured this mess to begin with? In all of this, has anyone mentioned what the global consequences associated with the County of Santa Barbara's criminal act in killing salamanders and blatantly violating Endangered Species Act laws? And, that the settlement with private land owner was a single digit fraction of the potential losses that their (County) criminal act would have cost tax payers? No, of course not. Let's focus on the stupidity of the moment and not what caused this in the first place. Good job county. Renee, you should educate yourself on matters before making such stupid comments to the press.

TheLorax (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 8:18 a.m. (Suggest removal)

There's a newflash....this BOS majority looking at taking private property from someone who was only trying to do the right thing.. .

BeachFan (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 8:40 a.m. (Suggest removal)

“We already purchased the conservation easement,” said Bahl. “We are securing the investment we made.”

Wait a sec, the county paid for the easement without closing the deal? How is that even possible? So now to cover their lil booboo their plan is to seize the land outright through Eminent Domain? A tool normally used to procure lands for freeways and dams and railroads? And if they're successful they think full title ownership of the land will cost them no more than an easement originally offered by a willing landowner?

Again, how is that even possible? Glad they chose an LA based attorney so that they could rack up the highes possible legal bill too. Smart.

ilumn8r (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 9:44 a.m. (Suggest removal)

According to the Santa Maria Times (January 9, 2013) when Peter Adams was asked by Lompoc resident Debora Titus how to vote on various statewide propositions on the ballot, his answer was, "If it costs money, vote no." Apparently he doesn't bother to follow his own advice in this case. Clearly, Mr. Adams, a massive lawsuit with an uncertain outcome will most definitely have a much higher cost than private negotiations with a willing landowner. And how on earth can a Conservative justify a land grab from a private rancher? Aren't you a private rancher? Will you vote yes when the County offers to sieze your land? Mine?

Northcountyvoter (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 10:48 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The dysfunction of our Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors and absence of reason is shouting out loudly at all of us here. Can people please remember this on next election day? How is it that someone like Adams, a tea toting red neck conservative rancher, can vote on seizure of a fellow private land owners ranch lands and call himself anything shy of a coward and hypocrite? Anyone in the 4th District who voted for this man should think twice come re-election day. As to the County, what part of this story surprises anyone? We are represented by a group of buffoons. This is not democracy, this is idiocy.

Boudica (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 11:23 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Oh and North County Voter, to your questions asked, Adams would simply reply:

"I'd say n do most anythin fer sum a dem north county votes. Now quit yer jabber jawin n let's go get us sum a dem tasty saleeemanders, dang nab it. Mmmm, there reeeeeal good eatin' fried up in lard! Don't worry about dem dang diddly Feds...ther all out on what ya call ferlo er sumpin"

Boudica (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 11:33 a.m. (Suggest removal)

They paid for it without securing the easement at the same time.
Apparently so, and now with all the ownership foreclosures, the property is owned by someone else (the bank), which does not want to accept the low priced easement already paid with no receipt.

All those Farmurz n Ranchurrz need to keep their boots on and their panties out of a bunch.

John_Adams (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 12:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Fish and wildlife (the feds) suggested that the county get a simple "incidental take" permit 8-9 years ago because their trenching project was very close to a known salamander pond. This would have involved covering trenches overnight, or at least checking them each morning for trapped animals. By doing so there would be some leniency in case of an error. The county blew off the suggestion and killed two endangered salamanders, so the feds decided to teach them a lesson (not the first time they had thumbed their noses at the Endangered Species Act). The feds assessed a significant fine, which could be swapped for buying a conservation easement and repairing a washed-out salamander breeding pond. The county has acted in bad faith ever since, obstructing and delaying remediation and whining about penalties.

This fiasco is the direct lineal descendant of that bad faith. The present property is not the first proposed remedy. Elements in county leadership seem to feel they are not bound by federal laws like the endangered species act, and they have stalled, screwed up, obstructed and basically blamed everyone but themselves, while burning the only really cooperative landowner they could find.

The term "doubling down," wherein you compound a mistake and dig an ever deeper and more expensive hole for yourself until it explodes from its own stupidity, has a natural home right here.

muddymudskipper (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 2:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Government is the definition of incompetence and many people beg for more of the same, I shake my head.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 5:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The spirit of Boudica--the Hibernian who put up the noble fight against the Romans--lives on!

billclausen (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 6:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Meanwhile, the salamanders are the losers. Where is their new habitat?

chilldrinfthenight (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 6:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Where are the oversight committees in all of this? If our own county violates the very laws that they are bound to uphold and enforce against the population, there is something seriously wrong here. Has everyone gotten a little too comfortable in their cushy government jobs and stopped paying attention? Seems maybe so. This is not right. BOS you should all be ashamed of yourselves!

MotherNature (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 8:08 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Speaking of salamanders. here is a song dedicated to them.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JQYK5...

dolphinpod14 (anonymous profile)
October 3, 2013 at 8:54 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Before you all go lambasting the county or "the gubmint" in general keep in mind that many complicated real estate deals attempted by entirely private for profit parties (Matt Osgood, Cross Harbor etc out at Naples) have fallen through the cracks of reality. Land use in general and conservation easements in particular can be insanely complicated. As an environmentalist I would say that this is generally a good thing but obviously it can be a real bummer for farmers and ranchers and sometimes for conservationists. However it is NOT, IMHO, more proof of the general incompetence of county planners or of the government in general.

Noletaman (anonymous profile)
October 4, 2013 at 9:47 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Sure will make anyone think twice before ever offering to partner up with the County on anything.

blackpoodles (anonymous profile)
October 4, 2013 at 1:14 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Counties have CEOs now?

loonpt (anonymous profile)
October 4, 2013 at 1:35 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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