The County of Santa Barbara isn’t in the clear yet when it comes to litigation from Adam Brothers Farming, Inc., which had a lawsuit filed in federal court on its behalf by attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) Thursday.

The lawsuit claims Adam Brothers is owed money damages for a “temporary taking of private property” when county staff and a consultant declared 95 acres along Highway 1 to be wetlands. Adam Bros. owned the land and was prepping it to be farmed, but the wetlands 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 and awarded more than $7 million in damages and attorney fees and costs to the farming company, the largest decision to ever go against Santa Barbara County.

But a state Court of Appeal reversed the ruling, and the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, allowing county officials to breathe a big sigh of relief, especially in light of the county’s tight fiscal situation. “This is great,” said a relieved 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal after Chief Deputy County Counsel Mike Ghizzoni announced to the board during its June budget discussion that the high court wouldn’t hear the case. “We have a little bit of breathing room : it’s turned out to be one of those unexpected gifts to the taxpayers of Santa Barbara County.” The county had about $5.4 million in a litigation fund in case of a loss in the case.

But the problems are back in the form of a lawsuit in federal court. “Now is the time for accountability,” said PLF attorney Alissa J. Strong in a statement. “The bureaucracy inflicted real damages on this family by violating their constitutional rights. We now seek a federal judgment that enforces the Constitution by requiring the county to pay for the damages it caused.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation is a watchdog organization that is involved in litigating property rights cases around the country.

“Unless the county is made to pay, they have zero incentive to respect the rights of property owners,” said Peter Adam.

The County Counsel’s office hadn’t yet been served with the suit, said Ghizzoni, and so he didn’t want to comment much on the suit. He did say that it wasn’t typical to see a lawsuit in federal court when another court had already ruled on the case. Ghizzoni said one of the key points a press release from the foundation failed to point out was that the Ventura-based Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision on all of its constitutional claims.

The court 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.


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