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Return to Save Haskell's Beach

Owner sells property rights

September 23, 1999 By MELINDA BURNS

Gaviota ranch protected from development

In what is being viewed by supporters as a model preservation project, the state Coastal Conservancy on Wednesday agreed to help buy up the development rights on a Gaviota coast cattle ranch.

Meeting in Santa Barbara, the conservancy voted unanimously to provide $400,000 of the $990,000 needed to purchase a conservation easement on the Freeman Ranch -- 660 acres of grazing land north of Refugio State Beach.

Les Freeman is the first property owner on the Gaviota coast who has been willing to relinquish his right to subdivide and build more homes. In return, he will receive cash that he says will allow his family to stay on the land and continue a long tradition of ranching.

The conservancy members congratulated Freeman on Wednesday and thanked him for his willingness to reach an accord. The county Cattlemen's Association sent a letter of support. Several local nonprofit groups, including the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Center and the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, have been pressing Congress to designate the entire shoreline as a national seashore, from the ocean to the mountain ridgetops, and from Coal Oil Point to Point Conception.

I'd like you to buy it all up," Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, told the conservancy board. "We have been far too expedient as a state with what we've done to our natural resources. This is the last of the pristine coastline that is unfettered and undeveloped."

Jackson pointed to Winchester Commons, a large housing tract on the western edge of Goleta, and the Bacara Resort & Spa, now under construction at Haskell's Beach, as examples of the type of development that could overwhelm the coast if the public does not intercede.

"There's just so long you can hold your fingers in the dam," Jackson said.

Jackson joined conservancy officials Tuesday for a tour of the Freeman Ranch, and they also visited the Arroyo Hondo Ranch at Gaviota, where the steep canyon walls bear a resemblance to a miniature Yosemite. Both Freeman and J. J. Hollister, a part-owner of Arroyo Hondo, are enthusiastic proponents of the preservation efforts now under way.

Freeman, in fact, accepted a purchase price of substantially less than the appraised value for his development rights. He said he urgently needed the money from the sale to buy out his brother's interest in the property. His brother, he said, wanted to sell his portion to pay the inheritance taxes on it.

"Inheritance taxes are the root of all evil in ranching," Freeman said. "This came at the right time for us. It's a way of taking an investment you had in the future and capitalizing on it now. My kids, my wife -- we've all agreed it's something we want to do. I don't want to see the coast developed. Up until now, I didn't know how to make all sides happy."

J.J. Hollister said he, too, favored placing his ranch into a preserve. "We don't want anybody wrecking this place," he said. "We'd like to see it left undeveloped, if that is what fate has in store for us."

Many of the 90 private properties on the Gaviota coast are cattle and avocado ranches. Thus, conservation easements, in which the public purchases an owner's development rights, are being viewed by preservationists as the most cost-effective way to stop urbanization. These easements guarantee that the land can never be subdivided for homes. With no development rights, the land decreases in value and the estate taxes go down -- a benefit to the landowner.

Preservationists say that only a few properties on the Gaviota coast would have to be purchased outright in order to provide public access to the beach and the national forest.

"There's no reason for the public to own huge tracts of land on the coast," said Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust, which will hold the conservation easement on Freeman's property.

If the preservation effort is not successful, much of the Gaviota coast may someday look like the 100-acre equestrian estate next to Freeman's property, Feeney said. This ranch was split off from a larger property more than 15 years ago and now features a 12,000-square-foot hacienda with 10 fireplaces, several guest houses, an artist's studio, a chapel, a riding ring, a barn and stables, trainers' quarters and a veterinarian clinic. It is listed for sale at $9.8 million, or $980,000 per acre.

The deadline for the purchase of the conservation easement on the Freeman Ranch is June. The remaining $590,000 is expected to come primarily from the state Resources Agency and Department of Conservation.

The Legislature has set aside $5 million in funds for the conservancy to help preserve land on the Gaviota coast. And a $2.1 billion parks bond on the state ballot in March -- the largest such initiative in U.S. history -- would provide $25 million in additional conservancy funds for preservation of coastal areas in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

But even this funding will not be enough, land trust officials said, adding that Santa Barbara County residents may be called on to pay special taxes to save the Gaviota coast. "I don't think we can rely on the state and federal governments for this," Feeney said.