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Coast landowners draw a line in sand

County sued over development obstacles 1/03/01


Four of the largest landowners on the Gaviota coast are suing the county, alleging a recent change in the rules governing the division of property unfairly reduces the number of homes they can build.

The four landowners together own more than 11,000 acres on the coast, including El Rancho Tajiguas, the largest property between Goleta and Point Conception; and they own the three ranches closest to the Bacara Resort & Spa, at Goleta's western urban boundary. The land in question is used for cattle and avocado operations now, but several of the owners have recently looked into new ways of reconfiguring their land for homes.

The lawsuits come in the midst of heated community discussions about whether the Gaviota coast should become a national seashore.

The plaintiffs include MAZ Properties Inc., a part owner of El Rancho Tajiguas; the Doheny family, owners of Las Varas Ranch; Rudolf Schulte, owner of the Dos Vistas and Dos Pueblos ranches; and Louis Parsons, who owns a ranch next to Dos Pueblos. The Las Varas, Dos Pueblos and Parsons properties are located within four miles of Sandpiper golf course.

The four Gaviota property owners are joined in their effort by John Stegall, owner of Rancho Monte Alegre in the western Carpinteria Valley. In separate suits filed in Santa Barbara Superior Court, they are challenging a county ordinance that generally prohibits landowners from reconfiguring their lot lines to increase their development potential. MAZ Properties, Schulte, Doheny and Stegall all have sought in recent years to do exactly that.

The landowners allege the county failed to perform adequate environmental review of the ordinance. They said the new rules would prevent farmers and ranchers from selling off some of their land to finance their operations and stay in business. And in any case, they said, the county should not be trying to eliminate residential building sites in the midst of a severe housing shortage.

"The housing continues to be a concern, and I'm surprised the county gave it such short shrift," said Susan Petrovich, a Santa Barbara attorney who is representing the landowners. "A farming family needs the flexibility to buy and sell parcels. A lot of small farmers could not make it if they could not live where they farm."

County officials said they made the changes because a number of landowners on the Gaviota coast and in the Carpinteria and Santa Ynez valleys had been trying to get around state subdivision law by applying for lot line adjustments, threatening the future of agriculture in those areas. Lot line reconfigurations originally were intended to help landowners avoid fences and driveways and other minor problems, the county said.

Under state law, a property owner who wants to divide a property and sell off or develop lots must build street, water and sewer improvements and pay fees for roads, schools, parks and public safety. Often, the landowner must prepare a comprehensive -- and expensive -- environmental report on the impacts of the project and provide offsets if the environment will be harmed. Lot line reconfigurations typically have not been subject to these requirements.

County officials said the new rules would help plug a loophole that has allowed property owners in the past to circumvent the burdensome requirements governing subdivisions. Monterey, Napa and Sonoma counties have faced similar problems, they said.

"The primary concern is rural agricultural resources," said Rita Bright, a deputy director of the county Planning and Development Department. "When you're trying to protect your urban-rural boundaries, and you have development sprouting up in the remote portion of those rural lands, that's a threat to that boundary."

The lawsuits were filed in October, just before Congress authorized a National Park Service study of 76 miles of coastline from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal to determine whether the area should be designated as a national seashore. The study and recommendations are expected to be ready for public review this summer.

Members of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a nonprofit group that supports the study, said the suits point to the need for governmental regulation to keep the coast rural.

"I don't think anybody can blame landowners for wanting to maximize the value of their property," said Mike Lunsford, the conservancy president. "As long as the conditions exist for land speculation to happen, it's inevitable that it will. That's why it's imperative that we find ways to provide permanent protection for the Gaviota coast."

The 3,700-acre Rancho Tajiguas is located between Refugio State Beach and the county landfill. In recent years, MAZ Properties applied to the county for permission to move around the lot lines at the ranch, borrowing from the largest lots to add to the smaller ones, so more of the lots would conform to the minimum 100 acres required for a home. The proposed changes would have increased the development potential of the ranch to 18 homes from five.

Just above El Rancho Tajiguas is the 1,400-acre Dos Vistas Ranch. There, Schulte proposed to move around the lot lines to allow for 14 homes, rather than the four now permitted.

In both cases, the county told the landowners a comprehensive environmental impact report would be required. In agriculturally zoned areas, one home, plus a guest home, barn and farmworker housing can be built on each 100-acre lot.

"We're not talking about your typical small single-family home," said Dan Gira, a deputy director of county planning. "Once the rancher sells the property, it typically goes into the hands of someone seeking to build a trophy mansion, a home of 5,000 to 25,000 square feet, with a lot of development."

MAZ Properties has not funded an environmental impact report on its proposal, and its application is still pending. The Schulte application was withdrawn.

Petrovich said her clients were simply proposing a more rational use of their land, placing, for example, the major orchards on one lot, and locating future homes where they would not be easily visible.

"These folks have the legal lots," she said. "Why not let them distribute them in a fashion that the county would be proud of?"

At the 1,800-acre Las Varas Ranch, just east of El Capitan State Beach, the Doheny family entered into preliminary discussions with the county for a 40-room luxury inn, a campground with 150 spaces, and seven lots for homes in return for setting aside the rest of the property as an open space preserve, with public trails to the beach and the mountains. The family eventually withdrew the proposal.

In the Carpinteria Valley, the owners of Rancho Monte Alegre held recent discussions with the county about a lot line adjustment to allow 30 lots for homes. No formal application was filed.

Last year, the heirs of the Bixby Ranch at Point Conception filed a lawsuit against the county claiming the right to reconfigure the 52 lots that make up their 24,400-acre cattle ranch, a property more than twice as large as the city of Santa Barbara. The changes would have increased the development potential of the ranch to 29 homes from 19. The suit was withdrawn this year.