When the sheriff’s deputy slapped the cuffs on Scott Orlosky, suddenly the mood changed. There he was, a 65-year-old man who up until that point had gone his whole life avoiding a jail cell.
That all ended in the San Marcos Foothills on Thursday morning.
Orlosky was one of eight people arrested, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, for peacefully protesting construction crews trying to obtain access to a housing site. Most were Indigenous Chumash elders.
Developer The Chadmar Group is looking to build the final eight homes in a 20-unit project on the San Marcos Land Preserve.
The area is sacred to the Chumash tribe, and environmentalists have formed the group Save the San Marcos Foothills and want to buy the land and spare it from development.
The San Marcos Foothills project has been the source of ongoing litigation and legal challenges.
A group of about 40 demonstrators stood at the gate to the development, on public property, to stop the construction crews from accessing the site early Thursday morning. The group had heard a rumor that the crews were going to try to gain access that day even though the two sides were in talks about the development.
By 6 a.m., demonstrators and sheriff’s deputies swarmed the scene, and Orlosky said it was “pandemonium.”
Authorities quickly arrested the demonstrators for not allowing the construction crews to pass through.
Many of those who were taken into custody were Indigenous, according to people at the scene.
Demonstrators who spoke with Noozhawk described the scene as “chaotic” and said law enforcement targeted female Chumash elders first.
“It was very obvious they wanted to get the brown and indigenous arrested,” said Marie, one of the people on site during the morning arrests who declined to give her last name out of fear of retaliation. “They consistently lied and said they would cite and release, but did not do that.”
The demonstrators said the Chumash elders were praying as they were being arrested. At the jail, some of the Indigenous people arrested had their facial piercings forcibly removed, they said.
“It seemed intentional that they went for the brown Chumash folks first,” Marie said.
Authorities also arrested non-Chumash individuals.
Three Chumash women were already in the sheriff’s van when Orlosky was escorted on. Like the others, he was taken to the jail. They removed his shoelaces, cut the strings on his hoodie and seized his daily medication.
Orlosky said he was “meticulous” about staying on public property and that the deputy told him he was being arrested for not moving when told to do so.
Sheriff’s spokeswoman Raquel Zick said the demonstrators were arrested on suspicion of violating 420.1 of the California penal code, which prohibits anyone from blocking a contractor to gain access to a site, and 647c of the penal code, which is typically a panhandling law that makes it illegal to obstruct the free movement of a person.
Zick told Noozhawk that those arrested were not targeted for any purpose other than violating the penal codes, not for their “race or ethnicity.”
Those arrested reportedly ranged in age from 20 to 70, and as of 2 p.m., all had been released.
Orlosky had a brush with danger the day prior. At 1:30 p.m. Thursday, he and another demonstrator attempted to block the gate. A bulldozer, he said, pulled up to just a couple of inches from him.
“All of a sudden, it got real,” Orlosky said.
Santa Barbara community organization El Centro immediately set up a fund to help those who were arrested. It is calling on the sheriff’s department and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Gregg Hart to drop all charges.
“This morning, Indigenous land defenders were arrested first while peacefully praying and protecting their ancestral homelands from being developed by The Chadmar Group,” a post on El Centro’s website stated. “The San Marcos Foothills are Santa Barbara’s last native grassland and the unceded, ancestral homelands of Chumash peoples. The Chadmar Group wants to develop this land into eight multimillion-dollar homes.”
The statement stated that the land is also the habitat to animals such as burrowing owls, coyotes, white-tailed kites and various hawk species.
“It’s a disagreement,” Zick said. “The construction company is trying to move equipment onto the construction site. The sheriff’s office is hoping the two sides can come to an agreement as to what is acceptable to each side. We are here to help coordinate at facilitate an agreeable resolution for both parties.”
The witnesses said authorities acted in a hypocritical manner by arresting Indigenous people standing on public property, but watched construction workers cut a hole through a chain-link fence to access the site.
“It was very unsafe,” Marie said.
The developers said they preserved 89% of the land, but as a compromise, obtained approval to build 20 homes. About 12 of them have already been built.
The Chadmar Group had refuted the critics of the project in early February in a press release.
“This attack on the donation of 90% of the property is an attack on preservation, and a slap to well-intentioned, responsible landowners working to conserve and preserve land through the marketplace,” the statement from Chadmar’s Chuck Lande stated. “After 15 years of inaction, a group is now filing frivolous lawsuits and making appeals in an effort to delay the project with the hope of raising funds. We have always stated we would sell at full market value, but this group has never made a credible offer or discussed a price even close to market value. After nearly three years, fundraising has not reached 10% of market value.”
John Davies, a spokesman for The Chadmar Group, told Noozhawk that Thursday represented the second day of blocking traffic on a public road.
“We asked for support from the sheriff’s department to ask people to leave,” Davies said. “Some got tough with the sheriff’s [deputies] and were arrested. Chadmar has remained open to a purchase for nearly three years; there has never been an offer or an agreement even close to fair market value.
“I think this was a reality check, that Chadmar has waited and wants to complete the second half of the project. This represents the largest donation of land — 316 acres for free — in Santa Barbara history. It leaves just 11% for home lots.”
Hart, the Second District supervisor, told Noozhawk that the event had caused “anxiety and frustration” for many community members.
“I have reached out to Sheriff Bill Brown, and he assured me those arrested have now been released,” Hart said. “This development project was approved over 15 years ago with a significant portion of the property dedicated as permanent open space for recreational activities and a preserve. I have asked the developer to temporarily pause construction activities so that community members can try to raise the funds necessary to purchase the remaining land approved for development.”
Check back with Noozhawk for updates to this story.