The Santa Barbara County Courthouse, a stately, Moorish structure dating from the 1920s, is one of the county's better-known landmarks--there are even guided tours for architectural sightseers. True to its period, much of the courthouse exterior is covered with carved stone: figures of lions, peacocks, mermaids, sea gods. In the shade, the building presents an imposing dignity. But it is in the sun that the old stone is at its vivid best, its antique menagerie alive in the light. Over one archway are etched words that seem to lend the building voice, too: "God gave us the country. The skill of man hath built the town."
Seventy-five miles northeast of the building, in Santa Maria, there are still men with the skills that built Santa Barbara and its courthouse. One of them is Hank Antolini, the son of Italian immigrant Giovanni Antolini. It was old Giovanni who supplied the stone and supervised the work on the courthouse. Stone had been his own father's craft, and his father's before him, curling back through centuries in Italy. Now Hank, Giovanni's son, and Paul, his grandson, carry on the trade. "Stone," Hank Antolini says, "is the only thing that lasts. History couldn't be written without stone."
In 1953 Hank found a nearby deposit of the rare and coveted Santa Maria stone, a type often requested by Frank Lloyd Wright and still used by architects in custom work. The Antolinis today restrict themselves to mining that deposit, located about 30 miles from and 3,000 feet above the city of Santa Maria, surrounded by the Los Padres National Forest. Hank and his son dig into their land, Colson Quarry, themselves; their five workers are driven to and from work every day by Paul, and enjoy both profit-sharing and pension plans.
"If you want to keep all the money yourself," says Hank, a compact, sun-leathered man of 73, "you have to do all the work yourself."
But G. Antolini & Sons may soon have no work for anyone. Santa Barbara County planning officials have been conducting an unrelenting regulatory crusade against the Antolinis for years, and the Antolinis aren't confident it will end until they are forced to close their mine. They've been struggling to keep afloat on a sea of extremely expensive bureaucratic requirements--report after report, plan after plan, hearing after hearing--while attempting all the while to run their small business. "It makes running your business like fighting a guerilla war," says Paul, Hank's 35-year-old son. "You never know what they're going to hit you with next."
In September, the Antolinis went before county officials in their fifth attempt to gain approval for an essential "reclamation plan." Paul anticipated difficulty. "Given the county's past actions," he said beforehand, "I don't expect any easy settlement."
The Antolinis' problems began in earnest when the land became theirs. For decades they had worked it as Forest Service land, under Forest Service regulations. Hank remembers the regulatory management as calm and commonsensical. He had no problem with the Forest Service, and the Forest Service had no problems with him. "All information indicates that Antolini has been an exceptionally good permittee...always responding to Forest Service requests," reads a 1978 report.
But when the Forest Service's attitude toward extraction industries began to harden in the 1980s, the Antolinis decided to file a patent claim under the 1872 Mining Act. That law shifts ownership of land from the government to citizens who discover and work a valuable resource.
Some have characterized the Mining Act's patent provision as an easy giveaway to mining interests, but don't try to tell that to Hank: Gaining the patent was a legal ordeal that lasted from 1986 to 1995. Even after a judge finally decided in the family's favor, it took Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt a year just to sign the necessary paperwork.
When ownership finally passed to Hank, the regulatory responsibility passed to Santa Barbara County. The county was once home to big extraction industries--lots of oil companies used to work out of Santa Barbara--but the county government now seems intent on creating an environmentalist haven. The Antolinis aren't the only ones feeling the anti-business squeeze.
Santa Barbara County is a place where trying to build a luxury hotel can lead to a 15-year approval and lawsuit process; where constructing a McDonald's camp for cancer-stricken kids can be halted by strict permitting conditions; where even greenhouses and raspberry farms are considered an industrial blight.
"Santa Barbara has a bad reputation with business, and they deserve it," says Andy Caldwell, the executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB), a local organization that keeps track of county regulatory doings for its 1,000-plus member businesses. In fact, the CEO of Chevron, a company with a long history in the county, once compared doing business there to the extortionate oil practices of post-Soviet Russia. "The Russians are difficult to deal with," he told Fortune magazine. "But, heck, it still beats trying to do business in Santa Barbara County."
"Whether it's building houses or hotels, or trying to harvest some rock like the Antolinis, they've created this convoluted process whereby the planning staff requires all manner of analyses that take time, energy, and money," COLAB's Caldwell says. "Every aggregate rock producer in the county belongs to my organization, and they all get grief."
County officials, he charges, regard the land, flora, and fauna as their real clients, not the businesses that are trying to slog through the expensive approval processes. "They tend to see the land as a community asset, not something that should be owned or subject to exploitation for individual profit," Caldwell says. "Santa Barbara's government also has this elitist attitude: We want gas cheap, but not off our coast. We want beautiful decorative rocks adorning our courthouse, but don't mine off our mountains. And now that we've got a place to live, we don't want anyone building new buildings to move in."
Part of the Antolinis' long struggle concerns how much of their land they can actually mine. The county originally denied them "vested right" to mine the entire claim that they now own. Although the county later backed down and recognized their right to their 200-acre patent (Hank had originally applied for over 1,000 acres), it restricted the Antolinis to mining only two portions--about 34 acres. That is losing them business because they can't keep up with demand. Without the approved reclamation plan--the one they have failed to obtain numerous times, and which they were seeking in September--the county considers itself merciful for allowing them to operate any portion of their patented land.