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Ruling Allows Completion of Islands Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a move that allows completion of Channel Islands National Park, a Los Angeles federal judge on Friday refused to halt seizure next week by the National Park Service of an historic Santa Cruz Island sheep ranch.

U.S. District Judge George H. King denied the request of Oxnard attorney Francis Gherini--whose great-grandfather settled the rugged 6,300-acre ranch--to block park service takeover because the agency has not yet paid him for his land.

In denying the temporary restraining order, King said he had no doubt the government will eventually pay Gherini--who has refused an offer of about $2.8 million--a fair price for his one-fourth share of Gherini Ranch.

But Gherini’s attorney, Charles Cummings, said his 82-year-old client is on dialysis from kidney problems and “will never live to see the money.”

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It could be years, his lawyer said, before the government works through its procedures to set the fair-market value of Gherini’s land and Congress pays the money.

The judge’s ruling allows the park service to follow through on its plan to seize the ranch, the eastern 10% of Santa Cruz Island, on Monday.

And park officials say the property, just 20 miles off the Ventura coast, figures to become the hub of activity in the five-island Channel Islands National Park, drawing tens of thousands of hikers and campers each year as current $15 landing fees and $25 camping fees are eliminated.

“Pending any other 11th hour legal moves, we’ll commence normal park operations on Monday,” said Jack Fitzgerald, chief ranger at Channel Islands National Park. “This is a good and historic day, and we look forward to serving the public.”

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Fitzgerald said the judge’s ruling was a relief after 17 years of trying to complete Southern California’s first national park.

“What Congress intended has finally happened,” he said. “The park was authorized on March 5, 1980, and it has taken to Feb. 10, 1997, to complete.”

Reached Friday evening, Gherini said he was not sure what legal options remain for him.

“I don’t know whether there is any appeal,” Gherini said.

According to a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, Gherini’s lawyers said after the hearing that they will probably try again to block the seizure by seeking a preliminary injunction. But that could be a longshot, the spokesman, Thom Mrozek, said.

“The judge has already ruled on the temporary restraining order, and the legal standard for a preliminary injunction is very similar,” Mrozek said.

Under the government’s seizure plan, the two sheep-hunting camps of Gherini’s concessionaire and the ranch’s kayak, bed-and-breakfast and helicopter tour businesses must cease on Monday. The island’s four caretakers will have 90 days to relocate.

While Gherini has refused to sell his one-fourth interest in the ranch to the government, the park service has acquired the shares of three other Gherini siblings since 1990 for about $12 million.

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“They didn’t get fair-market value--the government stole that property,” Gherini said. “Now they’d like to get my property for nothing.”

In his suit filed Friday, Gherini unsuccessfully claimed the government is violating his constitutional rights by seizing his property without paying for it first. The park service should place $2.8 million--its most recent valuation of his land--into a court account from which he can draw before it seizes ownership of his property, Gherini maintained.

But government lawyers argued that Congress’ “legislative taking” of the Gherini Ranch is supported by U.S. Supreme Court decisions allowing for payments for private property long after it has been seized.

“Our position is sound,” said William J. Kollins, chief of the Justice Department’s section that purchases land for the park service. “The Supreme Court says there is no requirement under the 5th Amendment that payment be contemporaneous or even near the time of the taking.”

In the Gherini case, the park service is following a tested condemnation procedure that allows the government to seize real estate, then attempt to negotiate a fair price with the owner over the following year, Kollins said. If that fails, the government files suit, forcing a federal judge to declare a fair market price, he said.

But Roger Sullivan, Gherini’s principal lawyer, argued that Supreme Court cases cited by the government involve emergencies where government action had to be swift to avoid irreparable harm to forests or land.

No emergency was declared by Congress last fall in seizing the Gherini Ranch, he said.

“This was a situation where members of Congress wanted to show that they were doing something about the environment,” he said, “so they threw this in with another bill.”

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Before the judge’s decision, Gherini said he would continue business operations on the island if he prevailed in court. Hunting concessionaire Jaret Owens would immediately begin booking trips for hunters, who pay $550 to kill sheep with bows and arrows and $750 if they use black-powder rifles, he said.

Although the park service is moving forward with plans to relocate about 2,500 wild island sheep, Gherini said he believes hunters could wipe out the herd over the next three or four months, since they would be allowed to kill more sheep than usual.

“I would like to see our program extended so people can hunt them and take them home,” Gherini said. “That would solve the problem.”

Kathy Jenks, the Ventura County animal-regulation director who is coordinating the sheep-adoption program, said such a prospect was repugnant.

“I’m disappointed that anyone would think the solution to the sheep is random slaughter,” she said. “If you’re lifting the limits, there would be no sport. And I question the motives of anyone who would want to kill for the sake of killing.”

She expressed relief that King had sided with the government’s position.

“That’s great,” she said. “But I’m sure Gherini will be back in court on Monday with something else.”


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