Egregious Violations in Smith River Estuary Block Public Access and Harm Tidal Wetland Habitat

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Thursday, November 19th, 2020

Reservation Ranch, owned by Steven Westbrook and located on the Smith River estuary in Del Norte County, has racked up multiple egregious public access and unpermitted development violations in and around the Smith River estuary that violate the Coastal Act and the Del Norte County Local Coastal Plan. These Coastal Act violations include grading and construction of roads, wetland fill, placement of fill in wetlands and tidal sloughs, damming of tidal sloughs, diversion and storage of freshwater for irrigation, dredging and channeling tidal sloughs, blocking public access to the ocean and public trust tidelands, removal of major riparian vegetation and placement of farm related structures. The owner has used manure, soil, straw, construction waste, trash, cow carcasses and other debris to fill wetlands, tidal sloughs and streams, which has essentially changed the course of stream flows and caused major modifications to the Smith River estuary. Additionally, the property owner has built canals and placed pipes and at least six pumps in tidal sloughs, streams and in the Smith River for diversion and irrigation without permits.

Prior to unpermitted development in Tillas Slough and Islas Slough, the public could access both sloughs from the Smith River. However, now several levees that cross the Tillas Slough completely block public access via the Smith River and have prevented the Smith River from washing through the slough, which has caused sediment build up within Islas Slough.

All of these activities have taken place within the aboriginal territory and the original Smith River Reservation of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, a federally recognized Indian Tribe of the Tolowa people who have lived for thousands of years off of the lands, rivers, and sea. The California Coastal Commission, which has jurisdiction over public access and unpermitted development violations has initiated proceedings that will propose to address the violations through issuance of Cease and Desist and Restoration Orders and administrative penalties. These sanctions would direct the owner of the property to cease from performing any additional unpermitted development activities, remove unpermitted items, restore the impacted area, mitigate for habitat loss, and pay administrative fines for loss of public access.

In cases involving public access violations, the Coastal Commission has authorization under the Coastal Act to impose administrative civil penalties that can be up to $11,250, for each violation, for each day each violation has persisted, for up to five years. If a person fails to pay administrative penalties imposed by the Commission, the Commission may record a lien on the property in the amount of the assessed penalty. Additionally, in cases involving development without a Coastal Development Permit, the Commission may impose penalties up to $30,000 and not less than $500 for each instance of development that violates the Coastal Act. Additional civil liability may be imposed on any person who develops without a CDP or inconsistent with a CDP intentionally and knowingly performing development, which can amount to $1,000 to $15,000 per day for each violation for each day the violation persists. Further, a violation of a Cease and Desist Order can result in penalties for up to $6,000 for each day and for each violation.

The 1,668 acre Reservation Ranch is currently listed for sale for $12,950,000. The listing boasts a dyke system, excellent water rights, 3 wells, main water pump from the Smith River, and an abundance of wildlife including trophy salmon and Roosevelt elk.