Land Use

Stoned in Santa Barbara

A family owned quarry business is no match for determined bureaucrats.

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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.

To get the patent claim, the Antolinis had to convince a federal judge that they had a unique and profitable product that they had been working for years. The "profitable" part was a sticking point. "What the state, county, and Forest Service were trying to do," Paul believes, "was use the regulatory process to drive up costs, by such things as limiting where we could put overburden [waste rock from the mining process], to render the operation uneconomical and drive us out of business.

"We used to push our overburden west, but the Forest Service said we can't have that since it might be seen from some campgrounds on that side. Then they ordered us to push it to the east, but then there was a landslide there." Now the Antolinis must keep their waste on-site, within lines determined by the county. That means the crew must work around their own waste rock, making mining slower, tougher, and much more expensive.

"We're being strangled to death," Hank says. "You can't work here, you can't work here. If you get stuck in the middle of a big job and can't dig up the material to finish it, you can get blackballed in this business."

The Antolinis point to a memo from a 1990 meeting of county officials that they say suggests a plan to squeeze them out of business. It says, cryptically, that the county must "determine what reclamation we want. It will significantly affect the patent application (mining cost)." While open to interpretation, the wording indicates that regulators knew that their approach to the Antolinis' reports would have a serious impact on the company's costs.

The long list of studies that the Antolinis have been required to undertake dates back to an environmental assessment done under the Forest Service in 1978 and now fills a page and a half: revegetation plans, biological evaluations, paleontological studies, visual analysis reports, air quality reports, another environmental assessment, a plant survey, a biological survey, a soil fertility analysis, two mineral reports, engineering and geological reports, a geotechnological engineering review, a landslide monitoring plan, a moisture/density test, a volume expansion analysis, a slope stability analysis, and, yes, even more. The total legal and professional costs racked up by the Antolinis stand at nearly $700,000--and counting.

But for now their battle to survive has come down to getting approval for the reclamation plan. Under California's Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1975, all mines are supposed to have an approved reclamation plan in order to operate. (In practice, anyone pursuing an approved plan in good faith is usually allowed to continue operating.) Such a plan describes how, after mining is finished, the operator intends to restore the land to some use other than a hole in the ground.

A good reclamation plan requires the services of geologists and engineers, and is very expensive to prepare. The Antolinis have prepared a lot of them: a May 1990 reclamation plan, a May 1996 reclamation plan, a January 1997 reclamation plan. That's $330,000 worth of required reclamation plans alone. Now there's the new reclamation plan under consideration in September and its costs as well.

But the expense that causes the Antolinis the most heartburn is the approximately $50,000 in fees they have paid the Santa Barbara County planning staff for processing their applications--or, as Hank sees it, paying the county officials for their so-far unsuccessful efforts to close his business.

The Antolinis have concluded that someone on the county's planning staff has it in for them. Indeed, there have been three attempts by the planning staff to close the mine, though the full Planning Commission, which has to authorize any mine shutdown, has yet to agree to do so. Hank insists that county geologist Brian Baca even told him, on his first visit to the quarry, that he intended to shut it down; that the Antolinis would drown in their own overburden because of restrictions on where it could be placed. Baca denies making any such comments.

However, there are certain on-the-record items that do seem to indicate ill will on the county's part. One is a letter to an Antolini lawyer from the Forest Service during his patent application. The contents of the letter boded ill for the Antolinis' claim, and a county planning official attached a sticky-pad note reading, "the thumbscrews continue to tighten."

County planning official Baca also has sent inspectors to the quarry, looking for public health and employee safety problems, without informing Antolini. A county building official, Frank Breckenridge, was sent to look for "an imminent hazard" at the mine, but found that "the engineering hazards could not be classified as an imminent threat to public safety."

A federal mine safety inspector was also sent to find hazards at Colson Quarry and couldn't. Robert Montoya, a Mine Safety and Health Administration employee, remembers being told, when he said he found no safety threat to the county, to "go up there and find something."

And once, when the Antolinis submitted a plan requesting interim access to two portions of their patent currently off-limits to them, Baca sent the limited plan out as if it were a reclamation plan for the entire quarry. That resulted in long letters from the planning and development director tearing the plan to shreds for not doing what it was never meant to do.

Baca insists he is not hostile to the Antolinis; he says the county is just trying to make them comply with the law. For his part, he doesn't understand why they keep spending tens of thousands of dollars on shoddy reclamation plans.

But whether such plans are adequate is up to the planning staff, which is free to exercise a great deal of discretion. "If you give them 10-foot topographical lines [on a map], they'll decide they want five-foot," says Hank. There is no objective standard. "Whatever you submit, they find a way to throw it back," says Paul.

A geologist who has worked on the last couple of Antolini reclamation plans, Ray Coudray, was once a senior engineering geologist for Santa Barbara County. He considers Baca too inexperienced with mining and unfairly niggling about this particular plan. Coudray has worked on reclamation plans for operations 10 times the size of this one, with less than a third of the information, and has seen those plans pass.

The main conflict between the mine and the county concerns landslides. County Supervising Planner Greg Fuz thinks that the Colson mine poses a danger to the surrounding land, mostly because of a 1995 landslide off the quarry's east slope.

Under Forest Service direction, the Antolinis had been putting their waste rock there. All sides agree that the quarry is in a naturally landslide-prone mountain area. Given that, and the enormous rainfall and earthquake aftershocks preceding the 1995 slide, Hank's geologists believe it's wrong to blame the Antolinis for the slide. The county's position is, given a landslide-prone area, why exacerbate the problem by dumping mining waste?

The county refers to the 1995 landslide as "catastrophic" in a memo. "There were no lives lost," scoffs Coudray, "no use embellishing it with the superlative of catastrophic. It was just a large landslide." It pulled down a bunch of live oak, which the Antolinis will be replacing, and sent rubble down a slope where no one lives or works. Hank's engineers and geologists have done extensive slope stability tests that involve boring two-foot-diameter, 80-foot deep holes in the area where they now intend to dump the waste rock. They think those tests should adequately answer any concerns the county might have about the ground's stability.

The county says the landslide filled a "blue line creek"--so-called because it appears as a blue line on maps. Coudray says that there is no such classification except in the minds of the county's planning staff. It's merely a drainage ditch that fills with rain water. When it gets blocked, the water either soaks in or flows around. No damage is done either way.

The three-volume reclamation plan prepared for the September hearing, said Coudray, was the most detailed he'd seen in his career. He predicted that the planning staff, when presenting their case to the commission, would have to do a lot of digging to find any problems.

The September meeting on that plan was nine grim hours of testimony, counter-testimony, and one threat to call the police on COLAB's Andy Caldwell. The county's planning staff, represented by Brian Baca and Greg Fuz, argued that the plan wasn't even complete enough to be considered, and they did sufficient digging to put the Antolini family back into a bureaucratic hole: This fifth attempt at filing a reclamation plan was rejected.

The irreconcilable differences between the planner/environmentalist world view and the miner's were on clear display at the meeting: A commission member professed bafflement at why the Antolinis wanted to take so much rock out of the ground at all. Letters were read aloud from local environmental groups begging the commission to end the mine-created "blight" on a single mountaintop among the hundreds in Los Padres. The planners demanded to know in excruciating detail exactly what the mine would look like at every point between now and 2020. How, the Antolinis wondered, were they supposed to answer such questions? They had no idea what their orders would be in, say, 2006.

The Planning Commission members made it clear that they didn't understand much of the extensive and technical testimony, but they concurred with their staff. In recognition of the Antolinis' manful attempts, however, they didn't declare them in violation of the law. Instead, they demanded that Hank come back in three months with yet another reclamation plan. A sixth.

The Antolinis are now being fined $10,000, plus $500 daily, by the state for operating in violation of mining laws. Hank is appealing the fine, which is based on not just the lack of an approved reclamation plan but also a difference over the proper amount of interim financial assurance--money Hank has to leave with the government to cover reclamation if he abandons the property.

But even if the Antolinis eventually get a reclamation plan approved, more regulatory hurdles await them. The next step would be an environmental assessment, which can either give the site a clean bill of environmental health or lead to a full-fledged environmental impact report.

Mining is a threatened occupation. It has become easy to forget that, as Hank puts it, "Everything we have comes from the earth." Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute has been watching mining come under regulatory attack for years. "In modern society most people have no understanding of what goes on at the basis of our industries that gives us all the things we want and need," he says. "By being so efficient, extraction industries have made themselves politically irrelevant. Americans think metal comes in nails and sheets, and oil from pumps. We want the beautiful penthouse apartment without having the foundation for the building."

And if the mining industry as a whole has become small and efficient enough to lack significant political clout, a seven-man family operation like the Antolinis' is particularly vulnerable. Their lawyer, Steven Kirby, has represented most of the big mining and oil companies that have attempted to do business in Santa Barbara. "They treat most operators badly, but they've treated the Antolinis worse than most. With big companies, you can only go so far and they have the resources to say `enough's enough.' It's harder for a family operation. The process of trying to defend your rights can kill you."

Yet Hank, unable to buy new equipment for eight years, unable to take his own salary from his company, and forced to spend more fighting off regulators then he ever had to spend on mining, has no intention of giving up. All his life Hank has been engaged in a romance with stone, working with pride passed down from his father, and to his son. "I'm a little past 39," Hank says with grim understatement. "What else am I going to do?"

If it's any comfort to him, every letter he gets from the county ordering him to spend more money or threatening to shut down his life's work is emblazoned with the county's emblem: its courthouse. Standing proudly, dressed in Antolini stone.