The Baupost Group, a well-known investment firm, purchased the Bixby Ranch (aka Jalama Cojo Ranch) in 2007 at the height of the real estate bubble. It is inconceivable that such a financial firm would have purchased the ranch for $134 million expecting to achieve their customary 20 percent annual rate of return by continuing to run a cattle operation. It undoubtedly had development objectives similar to those that have historically run rampant on the Gaviota Coast but have almost universally failed. The recent sale of the Ranch by Baupost to The Nature Conservancy was preceded by several little known but important events that hastened the sale.
The Gaviota Planning Advisory Committee (GavPAC) was a committee of stakeholders initiated by County Supervisor Doreen Farr and charged with updating the 1982 Local Coastal Plan for the Gaviota Coast. The 1982 Plan contained a unique development entitlement, the Agricultural Rural Clustering Ordinance (ARC), which applied only to Bixby Ranch. The ARC would have allowed for the development of up to 480 homes on the Bixby. Throughout the GavPAC debate on this issue, the ranch representative strongly supported the ARC. The GavPAC rejected the ARC in a series of votes, finding it wholly inappropriate with the rural character of the Gaviota Coast. The deletion of the ARC from the updated 2015 Gaviota Coast Plan was a serious setback for the development objectives of Baupost.
Baupost engaged in intentional and extensive land use violations including the plowing of five acres of the endangered Gaviota tarplant and the unpermitted construction of 36 water wells and miles of roads. The Gaviota Coast Conservancy alerted the Coastal Commission to the destruction of the Gaviota tarplant. The Coastal Commission finally gained the cooperation of Baupost and after six years of investigation and negotiations reached a settlement with Baupost in November. Baupost’s actions were extraordinary and showed ignorance and/or contempt for development regulations and community sentiment.
The ranch does not have an abundance of water so Baupost proposed purchasing surplus state water rights from the Carpinteria Valley Water District. In the spring of 2012, Brian Trautwein of the Environmental Defense Center and Mike Lunsford of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy appeared at the Water District meeting considering this sale of hundreds of acre-feet of surplus state water rights to Bixby Ranch. They informed the district that the sale of these water rights to the remote property would be growth inducing and would require the preparation of an environmental impact report. After a meeting with staff and another public meeting, the transaction was abandoned. Clearly a cattle ranch did not need hundreds of acre-feet of water for its cattle, but 480 houses would have required it.
The acquisition of Bixby Ranch by The Nature Conservancy through the generosity of the Dangermonds guarantees that the development days at the ranch have ended. What a way to start the New Year!
Phil McKenna is a board member of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and GavPAC participant.