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U.S. Seeks to Evict Island’s Last Private Owner

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congress is poised to give the heave-ho to an Oxnard attorney who owns the last bit of private property in Channel Islands National Park.

After negotiating with him for years without success, frustrated government officials have decided to force Francis Gherini to sell the 6,264-acre ranch he co-owns on the east end of Santa Cruz Island.

The sale has been tacked onto a massive parks bill that is tied up in the Senate, one of the final pieces of legislative business before the body recesses for the year. The House already approved the omnibus parks legislation, which funds park projects throughout the country.

Gherini, who defiantly challenged the government’s purchase last week, turned conciliatory in recent days as the Senate nears passage of the measure. Although he has run out of options, Gherini says he will continue to press for the best possible price for his land.

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“I’m comfortable with this process but I’m not sure it was necessary to engage in such a harsh remedy,” Gherini said.

The land, 20 miles off the coast of Ventura, has been in Gherini’s family since 1869, when it was purchased by his great-grandfather, Justinian Caire. The historic adobe ranch houses at Scorpion Anchorage and Smuggler’s Cove and thousands of acres of undeveloped rolling hills were handed down to Gherini, his two sisters and brother.

Gherini’s three siblings sold off their interests years ago for about $4 million apiece but Gherini, a retired lawyer, held out for more. He kept his 25% interest in the ranch, leaving the National Park Service with the remaining 75%. Together, Gherini and the government owned every shrub, rock and tree on the east end ranch. The west end of the island is owned by the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit preservation group.

As Gherini fought the government over the years, the appraised value of the land dropped. The last appraisal, which Gherini disputes, put Gherini’s share at less than $3 million.

Park officials have continued negotiations in recent years but they are constrained by law from paying much more than fair market value. The last meeting between Gherini and the government was in July. It ended without a deal, with Gherini pressing for about twice what the government is offering.

William P. Clark, a former interior secretary whom Gherini hired to represent him, said that Gherini wants to sell off the land but has been dissatisfied with the government’s offers.

“You have a willing buyer and a willing seller,” Clark said. “The only issue has been and will continue to be the fair market value for that beautiful land.”

To settle the dispute, which has stretched on since the Channel Islands National Park was formed in 1980, Rep. Andrea Seastrand (R-Santa Barbara) included a measure in the omnibus parks bill forcing Gherini to give up the land.

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“We, who care deeply about this park, have waited patiently for an agreement to be successfully negotiated to put into place the last puzzle piece of this national treasure,” Seastrand said.

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Within three months after the law is enacted--President Clinton is expected to sign the parks bill if an agreement can be reached with the Senate this week--the government would take over ownership of the property, whether Gherini agrees or not. Government officials would then engage in negotiations with Gherini over a price. If they fail, the sale price would be resolved in court.

The last time Congress engaged in a “legislative taking,” the government’s quickest way of buying private land, was in 1988 when officials bought a 542-acre property near a key Civil War battlefield in Virginia. Developers were preparing to turn the land--the place where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee commanded his troops during the Second Battle of Manassas in 1862--into a shopping mall.

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In Gherini’s case, park officials say they are also attempting to preserve a bit of history by restoring the island’s natural habitat.

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Gherini has permitted hunters to fly to the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island to shoot trophy rams for their horns and yearling ewes for their meat. Bow-and-arrow hunters pay $500 for the adventure; those with rifles pay $1,000. Gherini has also licensed a hunting guide to bring visitors to the land to fish, hike, ride mountain bikes or paddle sea kayaks, sharing the profit with the National Park Service.

“He has all these people tromping all over the place,” said one government official eager to oust Gherini from the land.

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Once the Park Service takes over Gherini’s interest, it plans to reduce the population of peacocks, wild horses, pigs and feral sheep that have overrun the delicate environment. Then park officials will renovate the historic buildings, restore the natural ecosystem, develop a system of hiking trails and make Santa Cruz the main visitor spot for the five-island national park.

One of those visitors may be Gherini himself.

Even as government officials prepared to force him to sell, Gherini was negotiating with the Park Service for some concessions. He said he wants a reasonable amount of time to give up his ownership of the island and the right for him and his family members to visit and stay on the land for the next 25 years.

“I have a real attachment to that land,” said Gherini, who holds a birthday party for himself there every Fourth of July. “I like the place--always have and always will.”

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