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By Casey Christie / The Californian
BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Kern County supervisors voted to give rancher and land developer Keith Gardiner and Occidental Petroleum 30 more days to hammer out a deal that would resolve a years-long dispute between the two.
The decision came after attorney George Martin, who represents Gardiner, delivered a blistering verbal assault on the county, including accusations of deceit, corruption and misleading the public.
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"I've spent most of my career trying to improve Kern County's image," he said. But, "I'm about to throw a lot of rocks and sticks."
The conflict between Gardiner and Occidental property Vintage Production is a sideline to a larger, more complex and sweeping debate about the permitting of oil wells in Kern, county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt said.
Kern County, Oviatt said, is proceeding with a plan to conduct a comprehensive environmental review of oil permitting in Kern County as the first step in the taking control of the process from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.
She said the oil and gas industry has agreed to pay for the process and defend the county's environmental work in court.
The goal, she said, is to streamline the permitting process, but also to answer questions about the industry's use of hydraulic fracturing, impacts on groundwater and other environmental concerns.
One of those concerns centers on how the industry gets access to mineral resources it owns under property owned by someone else.
Gardiner and Occidental are trying to resolve just such a dispute, both sides said.
Their negotiations are being driven by a county plan that would allow the parties in such disputes to appeal their case to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Oviatt said that the plan is no longer needed since the county is moving quickly to study and draft ordinance changes that will handle the larger, long-term changes to permitting.
"The issues that have been raised will be resolved through the long-term solution. There is now a process where this all could be resolved," she said.
Her recommendation had the support of two of the largest agribusiness companies in Kern County, Paramount Farms and Grimmway Farms.
Larry Moxley, spokesman for growers organized under the name The Committee to Protect Farmland and Clean Water, said confidential negotiations between Gardiner and Vintage were very close to a resolution.
But Martin said the county's discussion of dropping the short-term appeals process compromised the deal.
"We thought we had a close opportunity to clean this up," Moxley said. "I don't want to see George go out and do what he says he's going to do. He's their legal council."
Supervisors voted to give the process another 30 days.
But they rejected Martin's fiery rhetoric and questioned the value of the vitriol so close to a contract deal.
"I am frustrated that there is a pattern of blaming this board," said Supervisor Mike Maggard.
He supported the 30-day extension.
"This is not because I'm being threatened. This is not because I've been accused of doing something inappropriate," he said.
New airports director
Supervisors appointed airline industry consultant Richard Strickland, who has held management positions at San Diego and Detroit international airports, the new Director of the Kern County Airports Department.