Santa Barbara board upholds rejection of reservoir construction project on former HMC Holdings

In 2020, Harvard Management Company spun out its natural resources team, including a company that had purchased more than $10 million worth of Santa Barbara vineyard land in 2014. (Photo: Ellis J. Yeo)
Harvard Crimson | 12 October 2023

Santa Barbara board upholds rejection of reservoir construction project on former HMC Holdings
By Miles J. Herszenhorn and Claire Yuan, Crimson Staff Writers
The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted on Tuesday to uphold an earlier county decision that rejected a project to construct three water storage reservoirs on former Harvard University land holdings in central California.
In a narrow 3-2 decision, the board voted in support of the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission’s recommendation in March to reject the project.
Local residents and Harvard-affiliated activists have advocated for years against the proposed reservoirs, citing concerns that the project would have a negative environmental impact on farmland in Cuyama Valley.
Robbie Jaffe, a local farmer who co-owns Condor’s Hope Vineyard in Cuyama Valley, said in an interview on Wednesday that she is “absolutely thrilled” with the decision reached by the board.
“They voted to protect us and to protect the ranches and farms that are out here and that are growing sustainably,” Jaffe said. “It was a major victory against some very deep pockets.”
Local California farmers previously warned that the project could further deplete the water supply in the region, which is located in a critically overdrafted groundwater basin.
The project site is part of more than 7,500 acres of vineyard land that was previously owned by the Harvard Management Company — which oversees the University’s endowment. Brodiaea Inc. — a Delaware-based company fully owned by HMC at the time — purchased the vineyard land for $10.1 million dollars in 2014.
Six years later, HMC spun out its natural resources team — including Brodiaea — to Solum Partners, an investment management firm. Though Harvard’s investment arm currently retains little involvement in the day-to-day operations, HMC is still a limited partner in Solum, making the vineyard land indirectly part of the University’s endowment.
From 2008 to 2016, HMC spent more than $1 billion on land in Brazil, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, in addition to other countries.
Stop Harvard Land Grabs — a student and alumni-led organization seeking to end the University’s global farmland investments — wrote in a statement on Wednesday that the vote “demonstrates that it is indeed possible to hold Harvard accountable for its investment decisions. “
“Harvard Management Company, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Brodiaea, attempted to grab water rights in a critically overdrafted basin, undermine the livelihoods of smallholder and family farmers of the region, and profit off the climate crisis,” the group wrote. “Thanks to the tireless organizing of Cuyama Valley farmers and the brave decision of the county government, they failed.”
HMC spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan declined to comment, citing a company policy against commenting on individual investments.
Stop Harvard Land Grabs also criticized Harvard’s “broader pattern” of making “risky investments that threaten communities and the planet.”
“Harvard has shown again and again that it is not a responsible manager nor a good neighbor,” Stop Harvard Land Grabs wrote.
While Jaffe said she hopes “it’s the end of the road” for the farmers’ multi-year battle against the proposed water reservoir project, she said Brodiaea Inc. could file a lawsuit against Santa Barbara County over the decision or wait one year and submit a revised project proposal.
Still, Jaffe expressed optimism that Brodiaea Inc. and its partners will drop their effort to construct the three water reservoirs.
“Hopefully, it will stop here,” she said. “Hopefully they will look for alternatives because there are alternatives.”
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