County ordered farm to stop growing on wetland-designated farmland

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A California farm company wants to recover nearly $5.5 million in lost profits and decreased property values caused by a Santa Barbara County wetland designation that took a portion of its land out of production.

Adam Bros. Farming recently asked judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to allow the case to proceed in federal court.

The conflict dates back to 1997, when the farm company bought roughly 270 acres near Santa Maria, Calif., and soon found out that more than one-third of the property had been designated as a wetland by the county.

The designation prohibited any farming activity on the 95 acres in question, and took some surrounding land out of production, according to court papers filed by Adam Bros.

The company claims a title search did not uncover the wetland designation prior to the purchase.

After Adam Bros. attempted to cultivate the property, the county issued a "stop work" order and refused to hear an appeal in the matter, according to the plaintiffs.

In 2000, the company filed suit against Santa Barbara County in a California state court, claiming the wetland designation was fraudulent because the area hadn't undergone the required hydrological and soil tests, among other reasons.

Adam Bros. won the case in 2004. A jury awarded the farm company nearly $4.6 million in damages for lost profits and $900,000 for reduced property value. A judge later struck down the wetland designation. In 2008, however, a California appeals court threw out the jury awards.

Although the appellate court upheld the ruling against the wetland designation, it decided the financial judgment should not stand because the overall zoning plan had gone into effect before Adam Bros. bought the property.

Adam Bros. challenged the decision in federal district court, alleging that Santa Barbara County had violated the farm's rights under the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which holds that the government can't take property without just compensation.

A federal judge dismissed the case, ruling that the farm company should have sought damages in state court through a process known as inverse condemnation.

In regular property condemnation proceedings, the government acts as the plaintiff. In cases where the property owner files suit seeking compensation for taken property, the condemnation proceeding is considered "inverse."

During oral arguments before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an attorney for Adam Bros. argued that inverse condemnation proceedings aren't necessary in this case.

An established legal standard holds that plaintiffs must seek compensation through state courts before filing a federal lawsuit, but inverse condemnation is just one way to do that, said attorney David Breemer.

The farm company has already spent years in litigation at the state level, satisfying the legal standard and opening the way for a federal lawsuit on constitutional grounds, Breemer said.

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