It appears, at least in the eyes of the California Coastal Commission (CCC), that the un-permitted dirt-moving done out at Bixby Ranch this past winter was not quite as harmless as the owners of the historic Gaviota ranch say. After investigating claims from the folks at the Gaviota Coast Conservancy that large swaths of coastal mesa on the 25,000-plus-acre parcel just east of Jalama County Park had been on the receiving end of potentially illegal landscaping in December, Coastal Commission staff concluded early last week that not only was the earth-moving indeed done illegally but that the soil in question was federally listed as critical habitat for the endangered Gaviota tarplant — a near-extinct, yellow-flowering annual from the sunflower family.
Even worse, the property’s former owners were federally ordered a number of years back to convert that acreage back to its native state as part of rehab efforts in the wake of Unocal’s oil drilling activity there. Confirming that his agency had indeed sent a notice to the powers-that-be at Bixby, Coastal Commission Enforcement Officer Pat Veesart explained this week, “We concluded that there was disking and other work done in a place that it shouldn’t have been, and we are seeking to solve the problem. Hopefully, this will result in the re-restoration of the restoration area.”
The ruling comes as a bittersweet sort of vindication for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy. While the County of Santa Barbara was similarly tipped off about the activity at Bixby, its Planning and Development staff concluded in late April that nothing nefarious had happened — a finding that irked conservancy head Mike Lunsford. Fearing that the earth-moving and uprooting of tarplants was not only a wicked blow to an endangered species but also an intentional move to help clear the way for the future development of the area, Lunsford was outraged that the county was complacent, especially given the evidence he was able to provide after clearly photographing the impacted area from an airplane.
Now, he has a finding he can hang his hat on and hope that the wrong can be rectified. “It is sad and shameful what [Bixby] did,” said Lunsford. “I mean, when something becomes extinct, that is pretty serious stuff … Luckily, the Coastal Commission is doing exactly what you expect them to do. The Coastal Act needs to be enforced.” However, the Notice of Violation does little to ease his concern about the big picture future of Bixby. “These are not farmers that are making the decisions up there. They want people to see them as agriculturalists, but that is not really the true picture.”
Property managers at Bixby, which was bought for some $136 million by the Boston-based investment firm Baupost four years ago, have contended all along that the disking — which is similar to traditional tilling except that it only impacts the top three inches of the soil — was done purely for cattle-running purposes and with the intent to seed the area for future grazing: nothing more, nothing less.
With that in mind, Carl Steinberg, the executive vice-president at Coastal Management Resources, which is the business identity for Bixby, was hopeful this week that Coastal Commission staff could be persuaded to arrive at the same conclusion the county did — that nothing illegal happened and that no special permit was actually needed for the work. “We look forward to talking with CCC staff to understand their concerns,” wrote Steinberg in an email to The Independent.
Third District County Supervisor Doreen Farr, who counts Bixby among her constituency and who backed up county staff’s conclusions this past spring, this week attributed the difference in findings between the county and the Coastal Commission, at least in part, to a shortcoming in the language of the permit that the county initially issued for the original restoration work.
Chalking up the at-odds conclusions to divergent “interpretations of the permit requirements,” Farr opined, “We just didn’t write the first permit tightly enough, and, as a result, I think our staff concluded we didn’t have much we could stand on.” That being said, Farr added that staff was planning on following up with Bixby to make sure that the landscaping was definitely done with agriculture in mind. “We just have to wait and see what the property owner does next,” concluded Farr.