On Monday, Judge Colleen Sterne rejected a claim by Pat Nesbitt — the South Coast’s most outspoken sod farmer, a high-flying hotel developer, and a famous polo patron — that the Santa Barbara County supervisors abused their discretion by relying on what he claimed was unproven evidence when denying his bid to install a helicopter landing pad on his property on the outskirts of Summerland last year.
Nesbitt’s proposal to install a helipad on his property had been denied by both the Board of Supervisors and the county’s Planning Commission, and both by narrow 3-2 votes. In both instances, the majorities relied on testimony from 300 and 200 correspondents, respectively. Critics contended that the loud, percussive audio assault of helicopters taking off and arriving — up to two times a week — could spook horses and pose a safety hazard to users of the equestrian trails that run alongside Nesbitt’s property.
Nesbitt, charismatic and combative, has used his 20-acre estate over the past 20 years for polo tournaments, gala charity events, and political fundraisers, many of which have featured star-powered celebrities, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Nesbitt said his helicopter pad would be used by guests and also as a staging area for first responders in cases of fires and other natural disasters. His acoustical experts provided a study stating that the ambient noise of traffic on nearby Highway 101 was significantly greater than the sound of his helicopter. In addition, he marshalled notable support from several neighbors and some equestrian enthusiasts who use the nearby trails.
The supervisors, however, were persuaded by the overwhelming number of countervailing arguments that the pounding din of the chopper blades would be jarring for the surrounding community. To issue Nesbitt a permit, they argued, would set a bad precedent, one that would make it impossible to refuse other requests they believe would inevitably follow. Why open that can of worms, they asked, when the Santa Barbara airport is just 20 minutes away? The volume of complaints regarding helicopter traffic along the South Coast was already a growing problem, they noted; why add to it?
In ruling against Nesbitt, Judge Sterne said the courts are required to give elected local officials wide latitude and discretion in balancing conflicting evidence. Only in egregious cases, Sterne ruled, can such determinations be subjected to judicial reversal. Given that the supervisors accurately cited applicable planning policies, this case, she said, was not egregious.
Among Nesbitt’s many arguments was that the board decision intruded on the state’s right-to-farm law that bars regulatory interference with agricultural operations. Nesbitt had managed to bypass the county’s design review process when he first built his estate and polo fields more than 20 years ago by representing them as sod farms. While this legal strategy prevailed at the time, it was also proved extremely controversial. When Nesbitt argued his helicopter pad should be similarly protected — as part of an agricultural operation — he got no purchase with Judge Sterne. “These provisions are of no help to the petitioner,” Sterne wrote, “as the proposed project concerns the operation of a helicopter on petitioner’s property for the personal use of Mr. Nesbitt rather than an agricultural use.”
Nesbitt can appeal the ruling, but it is currently unclear if he plans to do so.
Correction: The ruling was written by Judge Colleen Sterne, which this version correctly states.