Op/ed: Response from Lompoc landowner involved in tiger salamander eminent domain case
[Editor’s note: In the June 7 edition, the Business Times wrote about the county of Santa Barbara’s effort to take part of a ranch near Lompoc through eminent domain for the endangered California tiger salamander. The Business Times left messages for the landowner, Sonia Anderson, who now goes by the surname Wisniewska, at a number obtained from county planning documents. After the story’s publication, Wisniewska contacted the Business Times and said she did not receive the requests for comment; her response to the article is below.]
I was approached by the county of Santa Barbara in 2009, along with neighboring property owners, and it was determined that Pond 49 was best suited for the restoration plan needed to comply with the county’s settlement agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS. It was a more economically feasible alternative than that of continuing litigation with USFWS. The terms of the contract were not intended to put any condition on the private land holder offering up lands to the county for mitigation against damages, but simply resolve the outstanding criminal case against the county from their destruction of California tiger salamanders and habitat in North Santa Barbara County back in 2005. I voluntarily entered into agreement with the county, and the easement was recorded in 2011.
The county was fully aware of the encumbrances against my property and knew that a subordination to my lienholders was needed to perfect their easement, but due to time constraints applied against them by USFWS, they proceeded with the closing and recording of the easement without obtaining subordination from my lienholders. Now, two years later, and as I stated in objection at the county hearing for a resolution of necessity for condemnation of my lands, the county is seizing the lands through eminent domain, despite the fact that the property is not currently in foreclosure, the debt has been brought current and there is no viable reason for them to condemn the lands. The easement is alive. The reason, they say, for the condemnation is that USFWS has a deadline set at Sept. 10, 2013 for the easement to be handed over to a third-party easement holder, a trust, and that trust can’t accept the easement until such time as it is perfected.
The county has determined that the most efficient “tool” to perfect the easement is the sledge hammer of eminent domain. According to your article, the county also claims that they negotiated with my lienholders to subordinate and that those negotiations failed. To the best of my knowledge, they never approached Wells Fargo and Bob Haugan, who purchased the debt from Santa Barbara Bank & Trust and is now the current second trust deed holder and who tendered an offer to the county for subordination terms. But the county simply said no. They did not counter offer; they did not even attempt to contact Mr. Haugan for any sort of compromise.
There is a very simple solution to resolve the perfection of the easement, chasms away from invoking eminent domain, but it seems as though the county is caught in its tunnel vision approach of taking a preemptive sledge hammer to an issue that could be resolved with a few simple phone calls. I have been and remain in favor of maintaining the conservation easement. Having said that, I am not at all in favor of the condemnation action, as it will detrimentally affect the value and future saleability of my land as a whole and it also creates an extremely negative public perception of what was meant to be an example of cooperation between a private landowner and government to the local community and fellow California tiger salamander habitat landholders. Anyone considering entering into a conservation easement for California tiger salamanders ought to proceed with caution after what the county has demonstrated here.
The laundering of my personal finances by the county in a publication is something that I do not wish to perpetuate. No one should have to go through this sort of scrutiny of their personal affairs in a public forum. It cannot, however, go without saying that the outrageous comment made by county counsel that I was paid monies, apparently spent them on other things and then declared bankruptcy is absolutely false. It should also be noted that I was not bound by the contract to spend the monies in any defined way. There was no provision or condition for such. The monies were spent, however, maintaining the substantial debt load, infrastructure and maintenance associated with the ranch.
I voluntarily kept the county apprised of my financial situation, and my financial records were made an open book for all to see when I filed for bankruptcy. An important fact to note is that when Santa Barbara Bank & Trust filed foreclosure action against the property, instead of walking away, I filed for personal bankruptcy to stay the action and save the easement. The debt against the ranch was the bulk of the bankruptcy case, and had I not been concerned over preserving the easement for the California tiger salamander, I would have simply allowed the bank to foreclose and walked away. Instead, I sacrificed my financial future and filed the bankruptcy, hoping that the stay would offer time for a resolution. The ranch was put up for sale, as transfer of title would have senioritized the easement, and due to the economic circumstances prevalent at the time, did not sell. I believe I can say with certainty that I am not the only one who experienced extreme financial hardship during these difficult times and did everything I could to secure the county’s easement. Mr. Haugan, the trust deed holder, has to date put off the foreclosure action started by Santa Barbara Bank & Trust to allow the county more time to resolve the perfection of the easement and, again, as of today the easement is still alive.
— Sonia C. Wisniewska