YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The legendary Bixby Ranch in Santa Barbara County has a new owner. What's to become of . . . THE LAST PERFECT PLACE?

May 13, 2007|Ann Herold and Dan Harder | Ann Herold is the managing editor for West. Dan Harder is a San Francisco-based playwright, poet and freelance writer who has contributed to NPR.

There was much heavy sighing and some collective head-scratching when the Bixby Ranch, a majestic coastal property belonging to the family that once owned all of what is now Long Beach and parts of Irvine and Palos Verdes, was sold in January for close to $140 million, a record for noncommercial real estate in California.

The 25,000-acre Santa Barbara landholding had been slumbering for nearly a century as a respected cattle operation, a rustic getaway for the Bixby heirs and their friends, a surfing spot of mystical isolation, a site of concern to archeologists and environmentalists, and a muse for artists and other casual visitors.

To many of them, the Bixby Ranch is the last perfect place in California. "The footprint of man is very light out here," says Bill Etling, a Santa Ynez Valley Realtor who grew up surfing the Bixby. "It's where you understand what California was all about before people ruined it."

"There's no place like it on this earth," says Santa Barbara County Supervisor Joni Gray, whose district includes the Bixby neighbor to the north, Vandenberg Air Force Base. "It's more beautiful than Yosemite or Yellowstone. It's the most beautiful place I've ever been."

Just who would buy the ranch was puzzling, largely because of a deal struck with Vandenberg. The base is the only place in North America routinely used to launch spy and weather satellites into polar orbits, from which they can map the entire globe. But what if one of those rockets crashed? Or, as did happen in 1986, a Titan rocket exploded seconds after launch, spewing a cloud of toxic fuel into the air?

The Department of Defense was thrilled when the Bixby stayed a low-populated cattle ranch and grew anxious when the company indicated that it was planning to build more than 400 homes. The Air Force quickly approached Congress about putting a sock on this "footprint of danger." In 1992, the U.S. paid the Bixby Ranch Co. $22 million to ban development on one coastal spread and severely limit it on another inland stretch, giving the rockets a safe passage zone over more than half the property. (Even now the Air Force is moving toward expanding its ability to launch satellites from the Bixby side of the base.)

There is some prime land still available for development, but it's zoned Ag 360 (one primary residence per 360 acres), not exactly helpful to a developer determined to build another Irvine by the sea. No wonder that it raised eyebrows when the ranch was sold to an investment group headed by L.A. developer Linda Miller, the point person for the expansion of Park La Brea while she was executive vice president for Casden Properties.

"I was in my gym in Malibu working out, and there were, of course, a lot of money people around," says Paul Sunderland, a sportscaster and former Lakers announcer. "Everyone was talking about the sale of the Bixby and speculating what might happen to it, what they would do with it."

What would you do with the last perfect place?

There must have been two kinds of people back then, before the country dissolved into civil warfare. There were the ones who clung to the centers of civilization, like bees. There were the others who, as soon as the living quarters got tight, took off to the next place where, for the price of a risk well-taken, they could look east, west, north and south and count it theirs.

The Bixbys of Maine were the latter. They'd had their fill of Massachusetts, landing with the pilgrim waves. They jogged north to the Arcadian state when it was still wild, and then began spreading west, until pretty soon you could ride from one Bixby house to the next in a matter of a day and make your way from the eastern shore to the heartland.

Llewellyn Bixby had already failed as a door-to-door book salesman when he and brother Amasa joined their cousins Thomas and Benjamin Flint in California in the early 1850s. The Bixbys and Flints, like just about everyone up north, were dabbling in gold mining. But it was proving more profitable to feed the miners. The men purchased a butcher shop, and they were soon thinking about farming and ranching. In 1852, Benjamin, Thomas and Llewellyn decided to "unite their fortunes for the undertaking of bringing to California sheep and cattle, more for the trip than profit," as recounted in "Adobe Days," a family history by Sarah Bixby Smith.

They bought the first portion of their flock in Illinois, eventually amassing 2,400 sheep, and headed for Central California. Along the way they haggled with opportunistic Indians, rescued stranded Mormons (for which they received a warm reception from Brigham Young), made a river crossing so precarious that they carried the sheep one by one on their backs, and then veered south when, fearing snow, they decided against a Sierra crossing. Ten months after they set out, the men arrived in San Gabriel. From there it was an easy amble north to the family headquarters near the present-day community of Hollister.

Los Angeles Times Articles