Environmental Groups Win Legal Fight to Preserve Agricultural Heritage in Santa Ynez Valley

By the Environmental Defense Center

The Environmental Defense Center (EDC) and Santa Barbara County Action Network (SBCAN) today celebrated a win in Superior Court that preserves agricultural heritage in the Santa Ynez Valley.  

The Court’s decision stops a proposal to subdivide the 4,000-acre historic Rancho La Laguna into 13 parcels, which could allow for building of high-end residential estates. A nearby massive development by one of the same developers was listed for $21.5 million and marketed as a “plantation style manor house” with “endless manicured lawns,” an enormous swimming pool, a barn for eight horses, and other amenities.  

“This was an important win in the effort to preserve the agricultural economy and spirit of the Santa Ynez Valley,” said EDC Senior Attorney Alicia Roessler. “Farming and ranching are not only part of our heritage of this area – it’s also a major part of our local economy. Approval of this project would have set a terrible precedent, paving the way for other large-scale subdivisions that would threaten critical agricultural land and biodiversity across Santa Barbara County.”  

EDC and its partners have been working for over a decade to preserve this active agricultural land. After numerous hearings and years of advocacy by EDC and SBCAN, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to deny the project in 2017. After the two owners immediately sued the County, the Court granted EDC’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of SBCAN to defend the County’s action. Today, the Court ruled in the County’s and EDC’s favor to uphold the County’s denial of Rancho La Laguna’s proposal to subdivide, protecting agricultural land, open space, and critical wildlife habitat. 

“Splitting this land into smaller lots for development would have undermined not only the agricultural integrity of Rancho La Laguna and the Santa Ynez Valley, but also would have eliminated much of the natural resources that make this area so beautiful,” said Carla Frisk, a member of SBCAN’s Board of Directors. “Farming and ranching are a key part of Santa Barbara County’s heritage. We are pleased that the Court has validated the County’s process that ultimately led the Supervisors to deny this project.” 

Rancho La Laguna is an incredibly rich and scenic property located in the San Rafael Mountains, bordering the Los Padres National Forest, and overlooking the Santa Ynez Valley. The land – full of rolling hills, deep canyons, and oak forests – is home to amazing biodiversity. Fifty-seven rare wildlife and plant species, including the California Condor, occur within this landscape and many currently coexist side-by-side with cattle grazing and farming.   

The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection. EDC’s focus areas include protection of the Santa Barbara Channel, ensuring clean water, preserving open space and wildlife, and addressing climate and energy.  

Santa Barbara County Action Network works to promote social and economic justice, to preserve our environmental and agricultural resources, and to create sustainable communities. SBCAN advocates a holistic approach to community planning that integrates housing, open space, and transportation to meet the needs of all members of our community and future generations. Learn more at www.sbcan.org 


Written by EDC

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  1. If this 4000 acre property was divided into 13 equal parcels, each would be 300 acres. That would provide each resulting parcel with more than enough space for agriculture. I like the idea of preserving larger properties like this, but it seems unfair to prevent the owner from subdividing. If you live in Santa Barbara county, your home was once part of a much larger ranch like this one. All of the Santa ynez area east of the mission was once a single Spanish land grant before subdivision began in the late 19th century. Blocking your his subdivision and development helps maintain the exclusivity of the area and high prices commanded by existing developed properties, but something about people living on subdivided land fighting to block a subdivision seems unfair. A better approach would be negotiating a deal with the owner for a conservation easement on the property.

  2. I agree that a better approach might have been to allow some development in exchange for a large conservation easement. Restore the land to oak savannah, use way less water, diesel fuel, chemicals etc than farming. My guess is that the owners will try again and this would be a good outcome

  3. My sources were very excited by this report! Thousands of hard-working people drive 2-3 hours back and forth to work each and every day because they can’t afford to buy ( or rent) a place to live close to where their jobs are in Santa Barbara, so it’s not ‘great’ to remove more land to build on. ( Thank you , environMentalists!?) The elite people in charge, and their sycophants, are naively and maybe nostalgically deaf, dumb and blind to reality. And looking at the recent several years of SBUSD student education scores, it is only getting worse! BTW, agriculture is only 2% of California’s GDP, yet consumes over 70% of our water! Enjoy the increasing prices, kids moving away, and homelessness consequences. Or, let’s stop the b.s. , regroup, and set a smart long-term sustainable growth plan for our County using each and every urban planning, manufacturing and architectural technology to provide desperately needed reasonably-priced housing, while also, getting all the cars off our roads!
    BTW, how is it that UCSB can invite over 25,000 people each year to their school-business, yet only have housing for less than 6,000 ? Pathetic, and abusive to our community, and clearly, an inflation driver of local rental housing costs that hurts our working families dearly in both money and drive time!

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