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Coastal panel rejects Gaviota golf course

December 12, 2002

Plans for a public golf course on the Gaviota coast were unanimously rejected by the state Coastal Commission late Wednesday out of a concern that golf balls and pesticides would harm a host of rare wildlife species.

Meeting in San Francisco until 9 p.m., commissioners said too much had changed since 1994, when the panel approved an 18-hole golf course, a nine-hole course, clubhouse, barn and office building on 208 acres south of Highway 101, one mile west of the Bacara Resort & Spa.

"This property and the entire Gaviota coast is deserving of the highest level of protection that the commission can afford," said Commissioner Gregg Hart, a Santa Barbara city councilman. "The decision today affirms that standard."

The golf course project was originally proposed by the Arco Oil and Gas. Co. It began to falter in 1999, when the permit was about to expire and the California red-legged frog, a threatened species, was discovered on the property.

Attorneys for CHP Dos Pueblos Associates, the property owner, argued Wednesday that the firm had vested rights to build the golf course that was approved in 1994. They said the project could not feasibly be scaled down to an 18-hole course, as the commission staff suggested.

Whitt Hollis, the project manager, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. In the past, he said the owners spent $11 million preparing for the golf course project, including working with Arco to remove an unsightly oil field operation.

Mr. Hollis said they would simply build houses if the golf course was not approved.

But there was celebration Wednesday night among the 25 Santa Barbarans -- members of the Surfrider Foundation, Sierra Club, Gaviota Coast Conservancy and other groups -- who made the long drive up to San Francisco.

"This is significant," said Keith Zandona, president of the Santa Barbara chapter of Surfrider. "It's a stop to urban sprawl, for the time being, anyway."

Mr. Zandona said he has surfed for 35 years at "Driftwood," a popular spot at the mouth of Eagle Canyon on the former Arco property. It was he who, on a hunch, personally escorted biologists to the canyon to look for red-legged frogs in 1999.

For golf aficionados who swamped the commission with letters of support over the years, the vote was a big disappointment.

"It's good to have some recreation opportunities," said Roger Hanson of Goleta. "It would have provided us some public access to the beaches. And they did a good thing to remove oil processing from the site."

This year, Dos Pueblos Associates offered to change the layout of the golf courses and redesign the buildings, reservoirs and roads to allay the commission's concerns. The firm also submitted a strict "pest management plan" for the greens.

But it was not enough for the commission. In addition to the red-legged frog, the tidewater goby, an endangered species, was discovered in Eagle Canyon Creek, below the proposed nine-hole golf course and within reach of harmful pesticides.

More than 70,000 monarch butterflies started roosting during the winter months in the eucalyptus groves near the one of the proposed courses. White-tailed kites, a species that had virtually disappeared from the county, began nesting in trees that were to be cut down to make way for another course. One pair of the kites produced five fledglings. Finally, the southern tarplant, a rare herb that had long lain dormant on the property, popped up en masse on the spot where a large clubhouse, a maintenance building and a parking lot with 300 spaces were planned.

"I would characterize the vote today as a commission agreeing to protect this wildlife wonderland," said Commissioner Pedro Nava, a Santa Barbara attorney who made the motion Wednesday to turn down the project.