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Public interest undermined in Gaviota decision

National Park Service cites opposition from landowners

4/9/03
By Mike Lunsford

The Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study by the National Park Service has confirmed what we have been saying for years: The Gaviota coast is nationally significant, and is suitable for inclusion in the National Park System.

There is broad local agreement that the Gaviota coast must be saved from urban sprawl. For the past three years, the Trust for Public Land and the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County have made valiant efforts to purchase land and easements from willing sellers to provide permanent protection using local and state funding. Yet today, of the 80,000 acres of private land within the coastal watersheds in the project area, acquisition of land and conservation easements cover about 6,000 acres, or only 8%percent.

And, more than 5,000 acres of coastal properties are presently for sale at a collective asking price of over $100 million. No one expects to raise enough local, state or private funding to acquire all these properties. So we are faced with making compromises with rural development that we wouldn't otherwise have to make, and each time a property is sold for non-ag uses, the price goes up.

This is the local context in which we receive the feasibility study recommendation of no federal assistance. The Park Service study recognizes the need for federal assistance, but cites the changing financial priorities brought by the Bush administration, and local landowner opposition as reasons why a Park Service designation is not now feasible.

The shift in national spending priorities with the Bush administration was expected. What is surprising is the extent to which Bush administration officials allowed the public interest to be undermined by a few private landowners.

The homeowners association of the Hollister Ranch subdivision spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lobbyists in Washington, not only to protect their private interests, but to undermine the public interest by trying to kill the study before it was completed. One tactic was running full-page ads using doctored and distorted photographs to bolster their inaccurate claim that federally protected areas cause traffic congestion.

Other landowners, with COLAB'S help, organized a "Coastal Stewardship Council" for the sole purpose of preventing an NPS designation on the Gaviota coast. Again, this was not an effort limited to merely protecting their own interests, but one that boldly sacrificed the public interest to achieve their goal. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit to stop the study reads like a membership list of these two groups.

These landowners took many actions to prevent you from having a voice in the discussion about the various alternatives for a federal role on the Gaviota coast.

These landowners defend their actions by saying local and state control is adequate and federal assistance is unnecessary.

They cite the Williamson Act Agricultural Preserve Program, local zoning ordinances and Coastal Act enforcement, yet none of these provide the permanent protection and equitable solutions of land and easement acquisition. All legislatively derived protections are vulnerable to political change and economic cycles, as evidenced by the current threat to the Agricultural Preserve Program by state budget deficits.

So, while these landowners call for "local control," you have to wonder what they really want. Before the NPS study, many of the opponents were equally vocal about their opposition to these institutions they now tout as Gaviota's local protectors.

Don't be surprised when they don't even support Alternative 2: enhanced local and state management, which is recommended by the Feasibility Study.

After all the rhetoric about local control, it becomes more and more apparent that these few landowners who helped take away our choices are too conflicted about permanent protection to support any new protective strategy.

News-Press readers don't have to sit idly by if they feel something went wrong here. Comments can be made in person at one of the three public hearings conducted by the Park Service: May 12 in Lompoc, and May 13 in Santa Barbara and Goleta.

Written comments can be submitted to the Park Service at: Planning and Partnerships, 1111 Jackson St., Suite 700, Oakland, CA 94607. The comment period for the draft study extends to July 18.

You can let the extreme views of a few landowners dominate what goes into the public record, or you can write or show up at these hearings and state your disappointment. The future of the coast may depend on it.

The draft study is on the NPS Web site at www.nps.gov/pwro/gaviota.

The author is president of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.