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Proposal trades golf course for homes

July 2, 2005

Park another possibility if funds are raised

A Newport Beach developer who sued the state Coastal Commission for rejecting his golf course proposal on the Gaviota coast now wants to build 12 homes on the property, a scenic piece of shoreline inhabited by monarch butterflies and red-legged frogs.

The proposal by Makar Properties Inc. is the result of nearly two years of settlement talks among four parties: Makar, the commission, the Surfrider Foundation and Santa Barbara County.

Sandy Weissbard, executive vice president and general counsel of Makar, said Friday that the lawsuit was now on hold, pending county review of the housing project. At the same time, he said, Makar has made a commitment to Surfrider to sell the 208-acre property for a public park, if the price is right and the organization can raise the money.

"If they are able to come up with funds to effectuate a purchase for conservation purposes, then that is acceptable to us, unless it is too late to pull out," Mr. Weissbard said.

The Makar property, a mile west of Goleta's western boundary, was formerly owned by the Arco Oil and Gas Co.

In 2003, the Coastal Commission rejected Makar's plans for two public golf courses, a clubhouse, a barn and an office building there. The commissioners said that golf balls and pesticides would harm the sensitive butterflies, white-tailed kites, frogs, fish and plants living in marshes, creeks and grasslands. The land itself is zoned for agriculture.

Then Makar sued the commission for $35 million, and a judge requested that talks begin with a mediator. At first, it was hoped that ties between Makar's owners and the incoming administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would help pave the way for a sale of the land to the public. Makar's chairman, Paul Makarechian, is the son of Hadi Makarechian, a prominent Republican and contributor to Mr. Schwarzenegger's campaign.

But Makar never got a purchase offer in writing, Mr. Weissbard said.

"There was a lot of conversation about the possibility of a public purchase, but it never matured into anything," he said.

Bob Keats, vice chairman of the local Surfrider chapter, said Friday that his organization still hopes to clinch a deal.

"We're trying to put together a campaign to raise the money to buy the whole property," he said. "That's our goal."

Makar submitted its latest proposal to the county last month in pre-application form, meaning it is not yet a formal application. The plan would merge 25 legal but substandard-size lots on 63 acres at the western end of the property into 10 lots for homes. Two homes would be built on the remaining 145 acres. For water service, Makar is proposing that some of the property be annexed to the Goleta Water District.

With Makar's application, more than 130 potential homes are proposed within five miles of Goleta's western boundary. This area, still largely agricultural, has been called the gateway to the Gaviota coast, a region deemed by the National Park Service to be "globally significant" for its plant and animal diversity.

Makar is proposing deed restrictions on some of its land to preserve farmland and open space. Public trails would be provided along the coast and to the beach. The coast here is popular with surfers and has one of two harbor seal pupping areas in Southern California.

According to the application, the development would not spoil the scenery, resulting in only "minimal, snapshot view obstruction to the ocean."

On Friday, Coastal Commission officials took pains to explain that the settlement with Makar was made to forestall a lawsuit and did not mean that the project itself was a "done deal."

"No one has bought off on or agreed to any specific recommendation," said Gary Timm, a commission district manager.

County planners said they would likely require full environmental review of the 10 homes proposed for 25 substandard-sized lots on the Makar property. These small lots were drawn up by speculators in the late 1880s as part of the "ghost" township of Naples. Today, they form part of another pending lawsuit settlement with the county.

Under the Naples settlement, the county is allowing an Orange County developer to propose 55 homes on 485 acres directly west of the Makar property. An environmental report on Naples is expected to be released for public review this fall.

In addition, the Moreharts of Carpinteria, who filed the initial lawsuit and still own 14 acres at Naples, are seeking to merge 12 lots to form nine.

"It's unclear whether there is going to be coordination among these projects," said Alan Bell, a county planner. "Right now, they are certainly separate."