Following a week of budgetary doom and gloom, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors received some positive news Wednesday. Chief Deputy County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni informed them that the state’s highest court had denied to review a case in which the county was originally found liable to pay but was later vindicated by a reversal from the Court of Appeals. The Santa Maria-based Adam Brothers Farming Inc. , the plaintiff in the case, has a 90 day timetable to file another petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the likelihood of that court taking the case is extremely slim.
The damages award – between $8 and $9 million in damages, fees and interest, the largest the county had ever faced – had been hanging over the county for years. The county had been placing $500,000 to $1 million each year into a litigation reserve account in case it eventually had to pay out money in the case, and the supervisors now have about $5.4 million now open to put to other uses. They could decide to keep the cash in the reserve in case of future litigation, but given the county’s current fiscal uncertainty, they could also opt to use some of the money to shore up deficits and restore cuts by as soon as this Friday. “This is great,” said a relieved 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal after Ghizzoni announced the notice from the Supreme Court. Carbajal indicated Thursday he intends to bring up the fact that they could use the money to shore up services during Friday’s meeting. “We have a little bit of breathing room,” he said. “Whether that factors into the picture now or next year remains to be seen. Regardless, it’s turned out to be one of those unexpected gifts to the taxpayers of Santa Barbara County.”
The case stems from a decision by county staff and a consultant to declare 95 acres along Highway 1 to be wetlands. Adam Bros. owned the land and were prepping it to be farmed, but this designation would have prohibited such activity without certain county permits. The county issued a stop work order against Adam Bros. in 1999, and the company sued the county in 2000. A Santa Maria jury found in 2004 that the wetlands designation was incorrect. But the Ventura-based Court of Appeals decided that Adam Brothers lacked legal standing because the wetlands designation was included in the Orcutt Community Plan, which was adopted just months before the company bought the land. That Adam Bros. had filed the suit too late to meet a filing deadline, according to the appellate court, was also one of the reasons for the reversal. Adam Brothers continues to farm on the property.