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Uncommon Ground

Landowners, Enviros, the County, and the Feds Fight Over Gaviota 2/8/01

By Matt Kettmann
Santa Barbara Independent

Leather boots and blue jeans converged on the county Board of Supervisors hearing room Tuesday morning, as Gaviota landowners took to the podium to stall the county’s contribution to a controversial federal study of the Gaviota Coast. The money—intended for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy—is part of a contract entered into more than a year ago between the county and the National Park Service to fund the feasibility study for a federal designation to protect the Gaviota Coast. Landowners hoped that by blocking this $25,000 installment, the study, which covers 76 miles of coastline, might be halted prematurely. Third District Supervisor Gail Marshall—who vowed at a December 6 meeting of Gaviota landowners to see what she could do to stop the study—obliged, and successfully moved to continue the issue for six months.

Unfortunately for the landowners, the study will go on as planned, since the $25,000 was a small part of the $300,000 budget. Of that, the park service—through congressional legislation sponsored in November 1999 by Rep. Lois Capps—is funding $225,000 and the conservancy is contributing the remaining $50,000.

Regardless of the ongoing study, landowners were pleased with Marshall’s decision and the willingness of the board to listen to their worries. Ken Doty, whose Ellwood avocado and citrus ranch is within the study boundary, said that this was the first victory for landowners that he remembered in the national seashore issue.

In the meantime, the common ground process—begun at that December 6 meeting at Las Cruces School—has been steadily trudging along, and, arguably, some progress is being made. The tumultuous first meeting resulted in the formation of a steering committee that has since met four times, last meeting on February 1. Depending on the participant, one of two extremist positions is stalling the collaborative process: either the pro-seashore environmentalists or the fed-fearing, “Ruby Ridge” landowners.

According to Lanny Stapleford and Bill Giorgi, two landowners in the study area, the four environmentalists on the committee—conservancy president Mike Lunsford, and one representative each from the Environmental Defense Center, Surfrider, and the Conception Coast Project—are adamantly in favor of completing the study and bringing a national seashore to the coast. At the second-to-last meeting, the four left in the middle of the meeting because they didn’t agree with the direction of the group. In addition, Stapleford has obtained the signatures of 1,400 Gaviota stakeholders who oppose the seashore study altogether. By sheer numbers, finding a consensus between the mostly urban-based environmentalists and the Gaviota landowners has been a quagmire.

According to Lunsford, the environmental contingent is so small compared to the rest of the steering committee that they “don’t really have any influence; we’re totally dominated. We don’t even have the ability to stall the process, nor do we have anything to gain by stalling it.” Instead, Lunsford argued, it’s the Coastal Stewardship Council—the group that has been publishing large, anti-seashore advertisements—and its members who are causing the delay. “They haven’t given any thought to what a local conservation effort would be,” Lunsford argued. “Their participation is ingenuous, only serving to derail any involvement by the park service.” By making the focus the destruction of the feasibility study, Lunsford claimed that the process is not staying on its intended path to find a common ground. The results of the study, Lunsford said, could be used to augment whatever the common ground group deems the best conservation method. As a response to the various concerns, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy has posted a list of frequently asked questions on its Web site at www.gaviotacoast.org.

An example of the continuing disagreements between the two fronts was the letter to Rep. Capps signed by 17 of the 25 committee members at last Thursday’s meeting. The letter was an official request for Rep. Capps to order a halt to the study because those who live along the coast weren’t sufficiently notified of the National Park Service’s involvement. The letter also addresses the concern of the steering committee that all of the hours they’ve put in to planning Gaviota conservation would be in vain with federal designation. Of the eight non-signers, four were environmentalists and the rest were landowners. One of these landowners was Eric Hvolboll, whose family has lived at the La Paloma Ranch near Refugio Canyon since the 1860s.Though he has no objection to his neighbors signing the letter, he didn’t sign because he personally was aware of the efforts of the park service and even attended a meeting about the issue in Rep. Capps’s office a couple of years ago.

Rep. Capps’s office received the letter on Monday afternoon, and a meeting has already been tentatively scheduled for Monday, February 12. Since the study was appropriated as part of this year’s federal budget, Capps does not have the authority to simply stop the study by making a phone call or flipping a switch. Only another act of Congress could effectively halt the study.

Rep. Capps has always maintained that she simply supports the study and nothing further. The information garnered from the extensive research of the park service will only serve the community’s interest in exploring the best methods for conservation, she explained. In addition, Capps’s office has ensured that one option of the study will be no action, and at least one more will be solely local control.

The National Park Service—whose June date for the draft study report has been pushed back to August—is supportive of the common ground process even though the process is largely anti-park service. “So far, all the common ground process seems to be about is killing the study,” said Ray Murray, the director of the feasibility study. However, he continued, “We are working on a timetable that will give an opportunity for the common ground process to come together and be productive.” Murray doesn’t see any reason to slow down the study, but did hint that it could be stalled to accommodate the conclusions reached by a productive common ground process.

While the seashore issue is still a controversial and time-consuming issue at each common ground event, the last meeting did show signs of improvement. Hvolboll, one of the more moderate members of the steering committee, said, “The process has been very contentious and unproductive, but the last meeting showed promise of productivity and utility in the future. The bickering subsided enough so that there was some agreement on what would happen to reach common ground. It was encouraging.”
Complicating matters further, however, is the January 18 filing of a lawsuit at a federal district court in Los Angeles. The Forest Preservation Society—a group that is most known for its opposition to the Adventure Pass program in national forests—is suing both the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior. The society’s members include people who live within Hollister Ranch and along other stretches of the Gaviota Coast.

The suit claims that the park service violated federal law by not adequately notifying all of the landowners that could possibly be affected by the results of the feasibility study. The U.S. Attorney’s office has already contacted the society and a meeting will be scheduled within two weeks. The society is seeking an injunction that would halt the feasibility study in its tracks.

Both the National Park Service and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy—a major player though not a defendant in the suit—claim that adequate notice was given throughout the last six years of negotiations. On a productive note, the county will soon complete its own Gaviota Coast Resource Study. Expected to be complete by March or April, the county document will contain an inventory of significant resources found on the coast, as well as a comprehensive detailed map compiled by satellite. Though it has nothing to do with the park service’s feasibility study, the document will assist in the long-term planning of the area, be it with federal government aid or without.