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Gaviota Turmoil

Some landowners fear national park

December 14, 2000

By Melinda Burns
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Several hundred property owners on the scenic Gaviota coast are denouncing plans for a national seashore there, saying it would spoil their privacy and put them out of business.

At a tumultuous meeting earlier this month of 200 landowners, brought together by the Hollister Ranch, the Community Environmental Council and county Supervisor Gail Marshall, numerous speakers clamored for a halt to the ongoing National Park Service study of the coast, angrily calling it a "federal land grab" in the making.

The Gaviota coast, a picturesque region of avocado and cattle ranches between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the sea, is one of the last remaining stretches of undeveloped coastal land in Southern California. At the request of Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, the Congress last year authorized the Park Service to perform a $150,000 study to determine whether the 76-mile-long coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal, from the shores to the mountain ridges, qualifies for inclusion in the national park system.

Among the alternatives under review is a national seashore along the lines of the one at Point Reyes, north of San Francisco, where dairy farms and cattle ranches continue their operations within park boundaries.

The Gaviota coast landowners say they want nothing to do with this or any other park proposal. They fear they would be forced to sell their land to the Park Service, though federal officials say this would not happen. The landowners fear that visitors will trespass and cause traffic jams, and that park rangers will be on the prowl, telling them how to run their cattle and avocado operations.

The landowners recently mailed a petition with 1,400 signatures to the Park Service regional office in San Francisco, opposing the national seashore proposal and calling for "only local, democratic input" to preserve the coast.

"It's private land and you ought to be able to do what you want with it," said Larry Parks, who was born on the family ranch in Las Varas Canyon and makes a living from his avocado operation. "I'm just interested in keeping it as it is. It's bad enough, fighting the county. The control of the national government will put more restrictions on you.

"All we want to do is farm. I want my grandson to farm. If this happens, we're not going to be able to do that."

A draft of the Park Service study, including recommendations to Congress, may be ready for public review in August. Capps issued a statement this week saying that she supported the study; and Park Service officials said it would continue as planned.

In response to the landowners' demands, Marshall, who represents the Gaviota coast, said this week that she no longer supports the national seashore idea, though she wants the study to go forward.

"I have looked into Point Reyes, and I feel that that is not a model we should be looking at any more," Marshall said. "Agriculture is being squeezed out, and that is certainly nothing that I would support. A lot of critics of this proposal have been quoting numbers of visitors, which probably means places for them to park and camp. That was not what I envisioned."

Members of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a nonprofit group that was formed six years ago, say they will oppose any efforts to halt or delay the study.

"This is just a blatant attempt to kill what's in the public interest," said Mike Lunsford, the conservancy president. "The National Park Service is not going to stay interested with this kind of controversy stirred up. We've told people over and over that we would not support the hostile condemnation of land, and we don't believe it's necessary. But there's just a set of people who hate government and don't trust anything associated with it."

The conservancy regards Park Service intervention as one of the best ways to stop the march of development west of the urban boundary line at Winchester Canyon Road. As things stand now, Lunsford said, three votes on the county Board of Supervisors could at any time change the agricultural zoning on the Gaviota coast to allow "trophy subdivisions" of expensive ranchettes.

"Marshall is going to cut off her constituency in the South County," he said. "Most people, by far, want to see some protection for the Gaviota coast and they support the Park Service participation in this project."

REAL ESTATE PRESSURES

The Park Service study is funded with $75,000 from Congress, $50,000 from the county, and $25,000 from the Goleta Valley Land Trust and the Packard Foundation, both private, nonprofit groups. It is designed to provide information on the natural, historical and archaeological resources on the coast and make recommendations to Congress about the best way to preserve them.

"We haven't even put together the alternatives yet, and people are making these dire predictions," said Ray Murray, a planner at Park Service headquarters in San Francisco. "Some of this local landowner group may be hanging their hats on just killing the project.

"The real estate pressures on the Gaviota coast are going to be absolutely ferocious in the years to come. We would like to see that agricultural uses are protected and sustainable over time and would not be subject to development pressures."

Murray said the Point Reyes model had been successful in ensuring long-term protections for agriculture. Some dairy farmers there sold their land to the Park Service and are now leasing it back, he said.

On the Gaviota coast, Murray said, the ranches could be protected either through the purchase of development rights or the outright sale of land to the park by willing owners. Visitor crowding and traffic jams have not generally been a problem in the national parks, with the exception of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, he said.

To date, only two landowners on the Gaviota coast have taken the final steps to preserve their land from urban development.for future generations. The J.

J. Hollister family is selling its 780-acre Arroyo Hondo Ranch at Gaviota to the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County for $6.2 million, and Les Freeman sold the trust his development rights on 660 acres in Refugio Canyon for $1 million.

Meanwhile, in recent years, the 400-room Bacara Resort & Spa has been built at Haskell's Beach, west of the Sandpiper Golf Course; two golf courses and a restaurant have been proposed on land zoned for agriculture just west of Bacara; and, next door at Naples, the county has entered into negotiations with a developer who had plans for 88 homes.

The Hollister Ranch, a gated residential community that coexists with a cattle operation, has raised its homeowner fees to pay for attorneys and lobbyists to defeat the national seashore proposal. The residents say they fear that visitors will swarm into their private enclave, where 19 miles of wild coast are virtually off-limits to the public-at-large. The ranch accepts only 500 visitors every year on special tours.

"We feel the ranch is very well preserved," said Kim Kimbell, a Hollister Ranch landowner and a director of the Community Environmental Council. "We fear the degradation of resources and the overcrowding under a national seashore."

Park Service officials said that any national seashore for the Gaviota coast would likely exclude the Hollister Ranch because development is already severely restricted there.

"You have extreme resistance from Hollister Ranch not wanting to be part of it, and I think we're agreed there's no point to pursuing that," Murray said.

BACARA IS A REAL THREAT'

About 2,000 acres of the Gaviota coast are in avocado ranches, and another 1,000 acres are in lemon orchards. Cattle ranching continues on many properties, but, landowners say, it is difficult to support a family on less than 2,000 acres of rangeland. Most of the landowners on the coast have other sources of income and do not make a living entirely from agriculture.

Jos'e Baer, of the Rancho Arbolado at Gaviota, and Frank Alegria, of the Alegria Ranch in Refugio Canyon, are among those ranchers who oppose a national seashore but want to work with the conservancy to find another way to preserve the coast. The Hollister Ranch is leading this effort.

Years ago, Baer said, his family was forced to sell some of its grazing land for the Gaviota State Park, and a long-standing boundary dispute ensued.

"They have been a difficult neighbor to live with because we graze nearby," Baer said. "If we had the National Park Service surrounding us, it would put us out of business. It would be a number of nit-picking rules.

"I recognize that Bacara is a real threat to my existence. But the environmentalist community doesn't understand what it means to be a farmer-rancher, and the rancher-farmer-landowners don't recognize what a valuable ally the environmentalists would make in their efforts to preserve their agricultural roots."

Alegria, who runs an avocado ranch, said that while he opposes a national seashore, he would favor a local plan to protect ranchers.

"Ten or 15 years from now, if nothing happens, we could have urban sprawl coming our way," Alegria said. "We need a vision for the future."

Other ranchers are mostly focused on stopping the seashore. They include Bernie and Lanny Stableford, who own a ranch in Refugio Canyon. Last fall, the Stablefords co-founded the Coastal Stewardship Council, a landowners group that circulated the recent petitions.

"Not much has changed along the coast, with the exception of two oil plants and a county dump, in quite some time," Stableford said. "I just don't know what the urgency is, in this particular case, to create a national park."

But for Keith Zandona, chairman of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit conservationist group, it is now or never.

"People don't realize how fast that coast can be built," he said. "We've got to save it. It deserves the highest protection and should not be frittered away with short-sighted, greedy speculation such as the ‘Bizarra.' Are we going to leave any of it for future generations to explore?"