By William Etling
Special to Calbuzz
Hotel rooms sold out in the sleepy Santa Ynez Valley Tuesday, as the world’s press corps descended in pursuit of rumors about Michael Jackson’s burial, viewing, memorial service and/or museum in and around his former Neverland Ranch.
As Santa Barbara County officials reportedly met about a local service for Jackson on Friday, fervid fans pushed a much hotter rumor – that he would be buried at Neverland, which would then become the site of a Graceland-like museum, one of the late pop star’s fondest dreams.
However, the illustrious patriarch of the Jackson clan, Joe Jackson, said Michael would not be buried there, and Don Loper, director for the Loper Funeral Chapel in nearby Ballard, had a succinct answer to the question.
“No,” said Loper, explaining that, legally, only ranches with grandfathered personal cemeteries may be used to bury remains. Of course, ashes could be scattered anywhere.
The possibility of a Jackson museum put Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, elected on a slow-growth platform, on the political hot seat, caught between music fans and her pro-green supporters. Speculation about a Jackson museum ignored one King Kong-sized if prosaic issue, however: zoning.
The ranch is five miles from the tiny wine tasting town of Los Olivos, where “Sideways” was filmed, out in the middle of fields and farms.
Santa Ynez Valley residents have spent the better part of a decade on a simple update of their existing community plan. After all that effort, and some riotous meetings, the final product is not much different from the prior plan, and it says that agriculture is ag, downtown is downtown, and never the twain shall meet.
The ranch formerly known as Neverland (the new owners call it Sycamore Valley Ranch) is zoned agricultural. Legally, it takes a Conditional Use Permit to apply for a commercial enterprise on ag land.
Brooks Firestone, the wealthy, connected former Assembly member and ex-Supervisor, who started Firestone Winery and is the scion of the tire fortune, abandoned an attempt to get a conditional use permit to hold weddings at his Foxen Canyon property near Neverland in 2008. The votes just weren’t there for it.
Tom Barrack, who bought Neverland for $35 million in November of 2008 through his company Colony Capital and lives nearby, was mauled by his Happy Canyon neighbors when he asked to open a winery recently. He eventually got approval to make wine, but easy public access was negotiated away.
Even affable octogenarian Fess Parker (Disney’s Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and the dad in Old Yeller) was politically pummeled by locals when he wanted to plant a resort amid the vineyards in 2004. The Fess Fuss even made The Wall Street Journal.
In this vigilant valley, commerce and cows don’t mix, which is why Supervisor Farr said in an interview that protecting agriculture may trump any plans for a Michael Jackson museum.
Journalist William Etling, the author of “Sideways in Neverland: Life in the Santa Ynez Valley,” was interviewed about Michael Jackson this week by CNN, the London Times, French radio, Rolling Stone, USA Today, KABC-TV, and some newspaper in South Carolina, among others.