Taxpayers will pay big bucks for Bixby Ranch

-- How to strike it rich in scenic land

By PAUL MILLER

Published: February 9, 2001


THE DOCUMENTS on file at the county planning office look unpretentious, but they're worth millions.

Just a few pages long, they're called "Certificates of Compliance" and, by confirming the subdivision of some of Big Sur's most scenic property, they'll soon generate a $20 million windfall in tax dollars for a group of real estate speculators from Colorado and Las Vegas who have mastered the California real estate game and in the process made experienced open-space advocates look foolish.

"I never had any idea the land was subdivided," said Peter Funt, who inherited Big Sur's most scenic ranch from his father, Candid Camera creator Alan Funt.

Just 12 miles from Carmel on the south side of historic Bixby Creek Bridge, the 1,200-acre Bixby Ranch has delighted and inspired visitors with its gently sloping pastures, craggy peaks and dramatic cliffs.

Peter Funt believed the ranch consisted of a single piece of land. With his father seriously ill from a stroke, he offered it for sale in 1997 for $10 million.

"My father's wish was for it to be sold in one piece and put into the best hands possible," Funt told The Pine Cone. "My hopes were that either an organization would come along and buy it to preserve it or, failing that, some individual who had a mind-set similar to my dad's."

Despite the land's singular importance to the scenery of Big Sur, years of conversation with the Big Sur Land Trust and other preservation groups yielded nothing, he said.

"They were always exceedingly nice to me, but they always said the same thing, that they had no interest or ability to pay us anything," Funt said.

When Alan Funt died on Sept. 4, 1999, his family faced a colossal estate tax bill.

"We had to figure out how to pay more than $5 million to the government, and I was actually relieved when I finally got an offer near the asking price," Funt recalled.

"I never met or spoke to the buyers, but their agent seemed very sincere when he said the new owner intended to live on the property," Funt said. "They even offered an extra $75,000 for the furniture in the house, because they said they liked it so much."

Escrow closed on Jan. 28, 2000, and the Bixby Ranch went to its new owners for $9,500,000.

County records show the new owner is a partnership apparently headed by a Las Vegas resident, Brian Sweeney. He wouldn't return calls from The Pine Cone. Neither would Ted Buchanan and Donald V. Bailey, whose names are also on county documents dealing with the Bixby Ranch. A partnership called Bixby Ocean Ranches, LLC, took title to some of the property. Various other business names also show up, including Bixby Creek Partners, Bixby Canyon Properties, and the Clifton Colorado Company. A Denver phone number listed for one of the groups is answered, "Triton Companies," by a man who won't confirm the names of any companies or individuals. A reporter's questions are met with a promise of a return call from an unnamed individual who never calls.

But a review makes their strategy clear. A thorough search of old deeds revealed to Sweeney and his partners that Bixby Ranch had been divided into at least eight parcels long before Alan Funt bought the land in the mid-1970s.

By guarding their secret carefully, the group bought the ranch for much less than they knew it was worth.

It was a technique Sweeney had also used in Santa Cruz County, where his group got $43 million -- including millions from taxpayers -- for Coast Dairies, celebrated as an open space triumph by Fred Keeley and Bruce McPherson at a 1998 news conference.

"They got the money for Coast Dairies, and they turned around and bought the Funt property with it," Congressman Sam Farr lamented.

"It's a strategy that, unfortunately, is cropping up more and more," county supervisor Dave Potter said.

After making the deal to buy Bixby Ranch from Funt for $9.5 million, Sweeney went to the Monterey County planning department with a request for "Certificates of Compliance," which would be the county's official acknowledgment of the ranch's subdivided lots.

On Aug. 4, 1999, the certificates were issued. Sweeney was on his way. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have protected the right of a property owner to put each separate lot to some sort of economic use -- usually by developing it.

In June 2000 one piece of the Alan Funt property -- a cliff-top house and about 15 acres on the north side of the Bixby Creek Bridge -- was sold by Sweeney and his partners to a private buyer for $7,275,000. Soon after, the Sweeney partnership inked a deal with the Trust for Public Lands, a national open-space preservation group, to sell the remaining acreage at Bixby Ranch for $25 million. In just one year, their $10 million investment had mushroomed to more than $32 million.

"$25 million is a lot of money, but there's nothing more important anywhere in the country for the government to buy," said Allan Front, an official with the Trust for Public Lands.

A $10 million appropriation made its way into this year's federal budget. More millions will be included next year, Front and Farr agreed. State funds and private donations will make up the rest.

"The price is certainly reasonable, when the choice is to acquire it or see it lost to development," Front said.

Why didn't his group buy the same property last year for $15 million less?

"We didn't get involved until the new owners were already in place," Front said.

"We've all heard the phrase, 'Let the buyer beware,'" Funt said. "Well I've certainly learned the corollary, 'Let the seller beware.'"