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Plans target Gaviota coast for up to 20 new homes

Evironmentalists fear urbanization along "globally significant'' landscape

4/4/05
By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER

Three more property owners on the Gaviota coast, an area termed "globally significant" for its rare species and habitats, are now taking steps to merge lots or create subdivisions for residential development.

The proposals by Tim Doheny of the Las Varas Ranch, Jack Morehart of the Morehart Land Co., and the Parsons and Dreyfus families, co-owners of the Eagle Canyon Ranch, could result in up to 20 new homes. If approved, the lot splits, mergers, subdivisions and building sites the owners are requesting would settle their property rights lawsuit against the county.

The landowners say they're simply doing estate planning to provide for their heirs. The new plans, on top of last year's applications for 55 homes at Naples, 24 lots for homes north of Bacara Resort & Spa and 19 lots for homes on the Dos Pueblos Ranch, have been met with dismay in environmentalist circles. Taken together, all six proposals could lead to as many as 118 new homes within five miles of Goleta's western boundary line.

Since 2002, when the Bush administration rejected a national park designation for the scenic Gaviota coast, about 15 environmentalists and property owners have been meeting to discuss how to prevent urbanization. They've been talking about how to allow for some development on the rolling pastures that slope gently down to the sea while still protecting plants and animals, canyons and woodlands, and preserving the views from Highway 101.

Now, environmentalists say, some landowners are jump-starting development.

"We've been trying to come to some conclusions, and here we go with development proposals that are putting the cart before the horse," said Ariana Katovich, an organizer for the Sierra Club. "I'm very disappointed. It's going to be a piece-by-piece battle over where the homes go."

But Mark Lloyd, a consultant for Las Varas, Morehart and Eagle Canyon, said the owners carefully considered environmental concerns in designing their plans. They have owned the land for decades and have only benign development in mind, he said.

"They're people who have demonstrated their ability to take care of the land," Mr. Lloyd said. "Why not work with these people instead of rolling the dice for somebody else in the future?"

In letters last week to the owners' representatives, county planners state that some of the homes on the proposed lots at Las Varas and Eagle Canyon would be "highly visible" from Highway 101 -- an assertion that the landowners deny.

In addition, the planners said, it is county policy to "assure and enhance the continuation of agriculture as a major viable production industry."

They said deed restrictions could be placed on the properties to guarantee that farming and ranching operations would remain in the future.

In 2002, the National Park Service published a study of the coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal, declaring that it was "globally significant" for its plant and animal diversity -- 1,400 species in all. Only four other places in the world enjoy similar climactic conditions, where cold- and warm-water currents meet and mix on the west coast of a continent.

Now that the federal government has left the scene and the state of California is in financial straits, it is imperative for local residents to figure out how to save the Gaviota coast, said Mike Lunsford, president of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a nonprofit group. The county has said it will not intervene to draw up a regional plan for the area.

Mr. Lunsford said that landowners who get permission to build homes on the coast should be required to give up any rights to further subdivide their land. Also, he said, any new houses should be restricted in size and hidden from public view.

"We'd like to settle once and for all the land speculation on the Gaviota coast," Mr. Lunsford said. "Maybe we can preserve the rural character, eliminate future urban sprawl and protect wildlife corridors."

In 2000, Mr. Doheny, Mr. Parsons and Mr. Morehart sued the county, challenging an ordinance that prohibited landowners from building on "fraction" lots that were smaller than what the zoning allowed. The ordinance also prohibited landowners from adjusting their lot lines to increase their development potential. In order for settlement proceedings to begin in the case, the court required the plaintiffs to turn in proposals by March 1 of this year.

Las Varas is one of the largest properties on the Gaviota coast: It covers 1,800 acres from Los Padres National Forest to the ocean, next to El Capitan Ranch. Mr. Doheny, a Santa Barbara resident, has owned Las Varas since 1966. He grows avocados, lemons and cherimoyas, and grazes cattle. His proposal would reduce the development potential on the ranch from eight lots to seven. The largest would be a 1,100-acre parcel for agriculture on the north side of 101.

The county's letter to Mr. Doheny's lawyers states that if Las Varas is subdivided, the ownership and control over the livestock grazing and orchard operation could become fragmented, undermining any future agricultural operation. The letter also says that the proposal "raises serious issues regarding sewage disposal."

County planners have requested a thorough evaluation of how the proposed homes at Las Varas would affect two monarch butterfly roosting sites on the property. A biological study submitted by Mr. Doheny states that no new homes would be located within at least 100 feet of the eucalyptus groves where the monarchs spend the winter.

Susan Petrovich, an attorney for Mr. Doheny, said all of the new homes at Las Varas would be tucked out of sight behind knolls or screened by trees. As for agriculture, she said, the lots were reconfigured so that they could more easily support farming.

"I don't know why they're so worried," Ms. Petrovich said.

The 1,060-acre Eagle Canyon Ranch has been under the ownership of the Parsons and Dreyfus families of Santa Barbara for 120 years. The property is located just west of the Sandpiper Golf Course and is leased out for cattle grazing and organic farming. The families are asking the county for permission to adjust their lot lines to create four lots, down from seven they have now.

Mr. Morehart of Carpinteria bought Naples in 1976. He sold most of it in recent years but still owns a 14-acre strip south of 101. Mr. Morehart wants to reduce 12 lots on this property to nine for his heirs. The existing homes on these lots may be replaced or moved if the lots are reconfigured.

The county's letter to Mr. Morehart states that his project "presents an opportunity to achieve important public access and recreation goals for the Gaviota coast," including a coastal trail.