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Coastal sale gets scrutiny

A ranch in Santa Barbara County is sold for about $140 million. Conservationists say they will keep an eye on the 25,000-acre property.

January 13, 2007|Annette Haddad | Times Staff Writer

Conservationists seeking to limit coastal development are scrutinizing the new owners of one of the largest undeveloped stretches of California coastline, which changed hands this week for about $140 million.

The remote property -- 25,000 acres of ranchland on Point Conception, up the coast from Santa Barbara -- was purchased by a Los Angeles investor group Tuesday after being owned by the same family for nearly a century. It is believed to be the priciest noncommercial real estate deal in state history.

The new owners "are being extremely circumspect, which is not surprising," said Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County. "They're not local, they don't have a presence here, and they have no track record."

Owned by the Bixby family since 1912, the land, formerly the Coho and Jalama ranches, was purchased by Coastal Management Resources, a Los Angeles-based partnership headed by Lake Arrowhead resident Linda Miller. The entity was formed expressly to buy and manage the land. Boston investment firm Baupost Group is among the investors.

The sale included 1,100 head of cattle, and the new owners intend to continue operating the ranch for the time being, said Steven Amerikaner, a Santa Barbara attorney representing Coastal Management. Beyond that, the owners said, they "have no preconceived plans" for the property, which includes nine miles of rugged coastline, wildlife such as foxes, deer and sea lions and a handful of nondescript buildings used for ranch operations and staff quarters.

"We plan to study the property very closely and work closely with local government and interested groups to come up with a full understanding of what this property is and what makes sense for its future," Amerikaner said.

In recent years, large swaths of the state's coastline have been given over to housing developments and luxury resorts, and groups like Feeney's are hoping to preserve as much open space as possible.

"We appreciate the beauty of this land and the resources it shelters and understand that the residents of this area, and indeed, all of California, share our interest in its future," Miller said in a statement.

Significant residential or other types of development could prove difficult. The new owners would have to work with the notoriously slow-growth-oriented state Coastal Commission and Santa Barbara County land-use officials to turn them into residential lots.

What's more, some development restrictions already exist because the land's location near Vandenberg Air Force Base limits building at the shoreline.

"Whatever they decide to do, it will be a tough path for them," Feeney said.

Nonetheless, there are other potential uses for the property that could prove profitable, including working with groups like Feeney's to create public access or conservation easements in exchange for limited development entitlements or tax benefits.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, meanwhile, might increase its tax breaks for landowners who pledge not to develop large parcels of agricultural property.

The final purchase price for the Bixby land was not disclosed. But people familiar with the sale said the deal came within 10% of the $155-million asking price.

That would eclipse other ranch sales in the state, as well as the $94 million paid by telecommunications mogul Gary Winnick for a Bel-Air estate in 2000, the largest residential real estate deal to date in the U.S.

Among California's largest landowners since the 19th century, the Bixbys had owned land that later became the foundations for the modern-day cities of Long Beach, Cerritos and Los Alamitos, among others.

In 1912, one member of the clan, Fred H. Bixby, bought the Cojo Ranch about 60 miles up the coast from Santa Barbara, followed by the adjacent Jalama Ranch in 1939. His holdings became the privately held Bixby Ranch Co., based in Seal Beach.

Two years ago, the company listed the ranches for sale separately. Last year, a decision was made to advertise the properties as one and to market to potential buyers seeking one-of-a-kind "trophy" properties.

"It was almost like marketing art," said Kerry Mormann, one of two listing brokers who represented the seller and the buyer. Sotheby's International Realty was also a broker in the deal.

In the rarefied universe of properties listed for $25 million and above, the Bixby ranches sold in a relatively short time, said Rick Goodwin, publisher of Unique Homes magazine. Ads for the ranches were featured in his magazine alongside those for Donald Trump's Palm Beach, Fla., estate -- listed at $125 million -- and the onetime Aspen, Colo., hideaway of Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar, on sale for $135 million. Trump's property has been on the market for nearly a year.

"A year is not very long in the luxury world and certainly not at the $155-million asking price," Goodwin said.

"It's the kind of property," he added, "that if you miss the opportunity to buy it, there's nothing else you can turn to. There's nothing comparable."


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