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A project to excavate a small portion of a 1923 silent-movie set buried in the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes — already derailed Sept. 30 by a Santa Barbara County permit snafu — will not happen this year even with an expedited permit process.

That’s the assessment offered Friday by filmmaker Peter Brosnan and the project’s lead archeologist, John Parker.

And Brosnan, who has spent nearly 30 years securing funding for the project, said it may not happen at all.

“We had a very well-planned project, which was utterly derailed at the last minute,” said Brosnan. “We’re going to have to do a very thorough assessment of all the bits and pieces, and see how the permit process goes. It’s way too early, and our heads are still spinning, to make a prediction.”

The excavation, which would involve about 50 cubic yards of sand, was approved in January by county planners, and was supposed to have started last week.

It would have completed a high-profile documentary that was started by Brosnan in 1983 and chronicles the story of what has come to be known as Cecil B. DeMille’s “Lost City.”

The grandiose film set of DeMille’s 1923 silent film “The Ten Commandments” was buried by the filmmaker after it finished production on the dunes. The remains were discovered by Brosnan when he followed up on a reference in DeMille’s autobiography and visited the site in 1983 just after an El Nino year. 

In a 2006 interview, he described the scene as “acres and acres of partially buried statues in the sand.”

On Sept. 30, however, the county Planning and Development Department said that it had erred in January when it declared the project exempt, and that, in fact, film and coastal development permits were needed.

“In January, I reviewed the project and determined that a coastal development permit was required,” county Planning and Development Director Glenn Russell said this week. “That was communicated to the applicant (Parker).

“But when the applicant went to the North County permit office, that office erroneously exempted the permit. They, (the project team) of course, relied on that exemption in planning their project.”

With days to go before the dig, Parker had hired six archaeologists, rented crew quarters for the month, had a contract to rent a storefront in Guadalupe to serve as a lab, and had obtained permission from the landowner adjacent to the site to access the project area through their property.

Parker said he had also arranged for field and lab supplies to be delivered, and had contacted the National Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure that there was no conflict with the nesting season of the endangered snowy plover.

In addition to money lost by Brosnan and Parker and a black eye for the county, the loss of the project is an economic blow to the nonprofit Dunes Center, which was anticipating $20,000 in funding from the project, and to the small city of Guadalupe.

On Tuesday, Dunes Center Executive Director Frances Romero appealed to the county Board of Supervisors, saying that the loss of money will damage the center, which among other things serves more than 5,000 area children through its educational programs.

Parker said one of the reasons the county decided to look at the permits a second time is because the Chumash Indians wanted to have a paid monitor overseeing the excavation, a fact that Russell confirmed.

“One day I was contacted by the Chumash tribe, and they were upset that they had not been consulted,” Russell said. “I was unaware that this exemption had taken place. They were wondering what happened to the permit process, and felt they were left out of the discussion.

“At that point I was alerted that something had gone wrong and determined that the exemption had been issued in error and that it was, unfortunately, necessary to process a coastal-development permit.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, Sam Cohen, the government and legal affairs representative for the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, said the tribe would provide a volunteer monitor for the excavation.

Parker, however, said he’s worked extensively with many Native American tribes on prehistoric sites, and that because this site is a historic site rather than prehistoric, it doesn’t require a monitor. 

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Not enough time

While the county has come up with a plan to expedite the permits, Brosnan said Friday that it would be impossible to complete the work before the rainy season even if the permits are in hand by Dec. 2, as the county hopes.

The coastal-development permit has to go through two public hearings, one of them before the Coastal Commission.

“We are proceeding with the expedited permit application process in an effort to mitigate our damages and reserve all of our rights and remedies. We hope we will be able to resurrect the project by October 2012, but your actions have made that very difficult,” Brosnan wrote in an email to Russell on Friday. 

Russell responded: “I am sorry that you have chosen not to move forward in 2011. I understand why. We will continue processing your permits so that they will be in place when you decide to move forward.”

If the project does happen, it will be without its lead archeologist, however.

An angry and frustrated Parker said Friday that, after 21 years of stops and starts, he’s cutting his ties with the project.

“I’ve been working for Peter Brosnan for 21 years to try to get the funding for this project. I’ve volunteered my time. I’m volunteered out,” Parker said. “We got the funding and the permits this year and we got slapped in the face.

 “The project would move less sand and do less environmental damage than a family building a sand castle on the beach, yet at the last minute, the county decided the project needed a coastal-development permit,” he continued. “This would have been a very small-scale scientific research project, aimed at saving a small sample of a historic site that is in immediate danger of being destroyed by natural dune movement.”

Brosnan said that while the future of the excavation remains to be seen, he is going to finish the documentary one way or another.

“I had $175,000 secured for the dig, and a significant sum for the documentary film, which I began shooting almost 30 years ago,” Brosnan said. “Instead of a Sphinx coming out of the ground for my last shot, it’ll be something else. I am going to finish it.”

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