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Family to preserve Gaviota farmland

Is the South Coast becoming L.A.? 12/20/00


Eric Hvolboll sleeps in the bedroom where his grandfather slept, in a 1902 ranch house with chinks in the walls, beside a creek on the Gaviota Coast.

Hvolboll would like to keep this slice of history alive for a long time. So he and his family, taking advantage of the public mood to preserve the scenic coast, are negotiating with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County to sell some of the development rights on their La Paloma Ranch. The sale of these rights, for a price yet to be determined, would guarantee that their 750-acre property would stay in agriculture forever.

The La Paloma Ranch is in Venadito Canyon, north of Refugio State Beach, and looks much as it probably did a century ago. On the northern boundary, the hills are covered with chaparral, and they back into the Los Padres National Forest. The grazing land and orchards are dotted here and there with oak groves and eucalyptus.

The deal with the Land Trust is expected to be completed next month. Hvolboll, a Santa Barbara land-use attorney, said his family was interested in selling the development rights to roughly five homes.

"We've talked a lot about it," he said. "This ranch has been our family home since 1866. We have a desire, because we love it, to see it preserved as a farm. We would not like to see our ranch be subdivided and used for condominiums or tract homes."

When Hvolboll's great-grandparents purchased the ranch in 1866, it was a sheep and cattle operation. At the turn of the century, following the shifts in the local agricultural economy, part of the ranch was farmed in walnuts and lima beans. Later, tomatoes went in; and in the 1960s, garbanzo beans.

The family presently runs a cattle and avocado operation which, over time, turns a modest profit. Hvšlboll said that his grandmother was the last person in the family to make a living full-time from the land.

If the sale goes through, the Hvolbolls would be the third landowners near Gaviota to sell land or development rights to the trust. The J. J. Hollister family is selling outright its 780-acre Arroyo Hondo Ranch at Gaviota to the Land Trust for $6.2 million; and Les Freeman, a rancher with 660 acres in Refugio Canyon, partially bordering on the La Paloma Ranch, recently sold his development rights to the trust for $1 million.

These private efforts come at a time when the preservation of the Gaviota Coast is attracting national attention. The National Park Service is performing a study to determine whether the entire coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal merits preservation as a national seashore. A draft is scheduled for public review in the late summer.

At Point Reyes, the only national seashore in the West, private ranching operations continue on leases within the confines of the park.

The zoning for the ranch provides the potential, though not the guarantee, for eight homes, including one on a six-acre lot south of Highway 101. Only one principal ranch house has been constructed on the 750 acres. Hvolboll said he and his two sisters all would like to live here in the future. Thus, he said, the family would like to be able to build two more homes, plus guest houses; but is not interested in further development.

The deal with the Land Trust would not include public access to the ranch. But the option of selling development rights has benefits for the family - and for the future of the Gaviota Coast, Hvolboll said. "We get what we want, emotionally," he said. "It makes it much easier for us to preserve the ranch if we can invest the money somewhere else. "I'm hoping that if it works for us, it will work for other people, too. We want the coast to retain its agricultural, bucolic, rural atmosphere."