By Sarah Rolph
The story told by anti-oyster farm activists is that the Lunnys reneged on a deal. These activists have linked that story with another story about “wilderness,” claiming that the public was promised Drakes Estero would be wilderness in 2012. In fact, it’s the Park Service and those activists that changed the deal on the Lunnys and the public.
The oyster farm’s onshore operations are governed by a 1972 Reservation of Use and Occupancy (RUO, a leaselike agreement). The original RUO provided for an initial 40-year term. The RUO has an explicit renewal clause, so that onshore operations could continue beyond 40 years as long as the oyster farm has a valid California Fish and Game Commission (CFGC) lease in Drakes Estero. The oyster farm’s CFGC lease is currently valid until 2029.
In 1976, Congress considered designating Drakes Estero as “wilderness.” But the Department of Interior and the Park Service told Congress that Drakes Estero could not become a wilderness until California gave up its rights to lease Drakes Estero. Congress agreed, and it removed the wilderness designation for Drakes Estero in the 1976 Point Reyes Wilderness Act. Legally, Drakes Estero cannot become wilderness until California gives up its rights (which it has not done).
For more than 30 years after 1972, the Park Service supported continued and even expanded oyster farming in perpetuity. For reasons the Park Service has not explained, however, its position changed completely after the Lunnys purchased the oyster farm in early 2005.
Early Support for Oyster Farm Upgrade
Just 17 years ago, when the Johnson Oyster Company wanted to upgrade on-shore operations at what is now Drakes Bay Oyster Farm, the Park Service was in favor of the project. Superintendent Neubacher backed the plan with a letter to the loan officer at the Bank of Oakland.
In his November 22, 1996 letter, Neubacher assured the bank: “As stated previously, the NPS would like the improvements to occur. In fact, the NPS has worked with Marin County planners to insure the facilities attain county approval. Moreover, the Park’s General Management Plan also approved the continued use of the oyster company operation at Johnsons on Drakes Estero.”
In 1998 Neubacher conducted an environmental assessment (EA) for the upgrade project that found the project would have “no significant impact” on the environment. There was no discussion of a mandatory end-date of 2012, and no concerns about legal issues or wilderness status. None of the environmental groups now calling for DBOC’s eviction opposed the plan.
Bait and Switch
According to Kevin Lunny, at the time of purchase Neubacher promised (but not in writing) that he would put three SUPs into the name of DBOC – one for the septic system area, one for the water well and pipeline area, and one for the ancillary use area (2.2 upland acres surrounding the 1.4 acre RUO).
“Don kept his word for the septic and the well SUPs,” says Lunny. “But the Ancillary Use SUP, which had been expired and never renewed and never charged or paid for by the Johnsons since 1997, was not put into DBOC’s name as promised.”
After the Lunnys purchased the oyster farm and spent a small fortune cleaning up the operation, instead of putting the Ancillary Use SUP in DBOC’s name, Neubacher rewrote this SUP to include a new clause requiring that the oyster farm vacate the premises in 2012. Explains Lunny, “Don attempted to contractually remove our chance for renewal seven years before the expiration, cancelling the renewal clause we had spent months talking about.”
NPS Director Bomar Intervenes
Given the extreme change in the agreement, this was a permit the Lunnys could not and did not sign. The Lunnys were supported in this decision by both Senator Feinstein and then-director of the National Park Service Mary Bomar.
Senator Feinstein became involved in early May, 2007 at the request of the Marin County Board of Supervisors. The Supervisors had become alarmed at the false science created by the NPS and the false rumors Neubacher spread about the Lunnys.
At a meeting in Olema, CA on July 21, 2007 (attended by Senator Feinstein, Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, NPS Director Mary Bomar, NPS Regional Director Jon Jarvis, Superintendent Neubacher, DOI Solicitor’s Office attorney Molly Ross, Dr. Corey Goodman, and Kevin Lunny), Director Bomar removed Neubacher from the negotiations and ordered Jarvis to deal directly with the Lunnys.
Bomar specifically ordered Jarvis to remove the surrender clause added by Neubacher. The Jarvis rewrite of the SUP added multiple unjustified restrictions and new assertions of jurisdiction, but once the surrender clause was removed in 2008, the Lunnys signed the permit, considering it the best option available.
A Field Solicitor’s Opinion
The one document that is often used to support claims of non-renewability is a 2004 local field solicitor’s opinion, a letter erroneously concluding that the RUO could not be renewed. That opinion was provided to the Lunnys in early 2005, after they had taken over the oyster farm and spent over a quarter million dollars to clean up the operation.
Department of Justice lawyers have admitted in federal court that DBOC was not given the opinion until 2005, after DBOC had taken over. Yet the DoJ lawyers, the NPS, and the wilderness activists handle this fact dishonestly. They told the court and they tell the public that “Lunny was provided the opinion before escrow closed.” The close of escrow depended on NPS putting all three SUPs into DBOC’s name, and NPS failed to uphold their promise to do so. Because NPS failed to issue the third SUP, escrow never formally closed, but with the signing of the permit in April of 2008 it was considered as good as closed.
An Unexplained Shift
From the beginning of his tenure as Superintendent up until 2005, Neubacher appeared to the public to be managing the Estero as a responsible superintendent of Point Reyes National Seashore, working with all constituents concerning the fate of the oyster farm.
The public has not been told what changed in 2005. But clearly, beginning then, the Park Service at Point Reyes departed from responsible management and began acting in service of an agenda that has not been shared with the public. Regardless of one’s views on wilderness, oysters, or commercial farming, one ought to be alarmed when a government agency decides to renege on deals and rewrite history.
The public’s deal with the Park Service is that we will give them our tax dollars and they will spend them in accordance with the law. Like any citizen and taxpayer, the Lunnys had every right to expect that Neubacher and Jarvis and NPS would act lawfully. The Lunnys and the community will not rest until this injustice is corrected.