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Refugio ranch to stay undeveloped

July 18, 1999

Innovative deal to purchase "development rights" pleases owners and environmentalists.

The grassy, oak-dotted slopes rising behind Refugio State Beach will forever stay natural and wild, shielded from development by a pending land deal that could set a precedent for protecting the Gaviota Coast.

The owners of the 660-acre Freeman Ranch have agreed to sell their development rights to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. The Land Trust, in coordination with the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and county officials, negotiated with brothers Les and James Freeman to purchase the conservation easement.

The Land Trust has already raised about a third of the $990,000 purchase price, and Executive Director Michael Feeney is confident of securing full funding within a nine-month deadline. The group is also continuing to work with other property owners along the coast to complete similar deals.

The Gaviota Coast is one of the largest and most spectacular undeveloped coastal areas in Southern California. It has been used as ranch and agricultural land for more than 200 years. A proposal to make it a national seashore has support from the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, and the Environmental Defense Center.

Without permanent conservation efforts, Feeney said, ranches and other open land will face increasing pressure to be subdivided and developed for housing.

"This particular property has pretty special natural-resource features, including a spring-fed pond, remnant oak woodlands and Refugio Creek runs through it for a mile," Feeney said. "It's the backdrop to Refugio Beach. It's a special place."

Les Freeman and his family have lived on their ranch for 45 years. The property laps up both sides of Refugio Canyon for about a mile from Highway 101.

"The only way to keep the coast like this is to buy out the development rights," Les Freeman said. "It's something I believe in. From San Diego on up, the coast has pretty much been ruined. This is making sure this ranch will never be developed, no matter what happens for the rest of the coast, for eternity."

Freeman noted that his family will have to pay taxes on the $990,000 conservation-easement purchase.

"My kids and I are in agreement to do this, and the rest of the generations will have to live with it," he said. "This also is a way for us to help keep the ranch because inheritance taxes for farmers are terrible. This will help us keep the ranch and keep it in agriculture and open space."

The Freeman Ranch has historically supported cattle ranching and some hay and grain farming.

"The other property owners on the coast have to do what they feel is right," he said. "I'm a fierce believer in private-property rights, but I don't think you can legislate protecting the coast. So this to me is the right way to do it."

Feeney said it does not make sense for the government to buy lots of land along the oceanfront. Preserving it through conservation easements that encourage agriculture is wiser.

The agreement is a victory for the Freemans and for the public, said Andy Mills of Solvang, a member of the Land Trust.

"These agricultural conservation easements allow the rancher to stay in business by giving him some of the capital that he would have received through some of the non-ag value of the land," Mills said. "The public gets the open space that makes this county and that coastline in particular so special. The environmentalists get the resource protection."

As the ranch will stay in private ownership, the agreement does not allow the public to roam the property.

The county Board of Supervisors supports the proposal. The supervisors and Land Trust members hope to use a state grant from the Agricultural Land Stewardship Program to help cover the easement purchase. Additional funding will be sought from foundations, the California Coastal Conservancy and possibly this year's Coastal Resources Enhancement Fund, known as CREF. Oil companies make annual payments to the county's CREF as a requirement for their offshore oil and gas projects.

"There's a lot of public and private support for this agreement on the Freeman Ranch," Feeney said. "We don't have all the money yet, but we've got a very good start and encouraging feedback. We've moving forward."