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Park service outlines four options for Gaviota coast



The Gaviota coast is a national treasure, vulnerable to development and deserving of special protections, the National Park Service said Tuesday.

More than 1,400 species are known to inhabit the 76-mile-long coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal, in a region where north-south climates and global ocean currents converge. The many creeks and rivers along the coast are full of wildlife; and the soil is steeped in history: the Chumash, the Spaniards and the Mexican rancheros all made their mark here.

"The future of this coast is going to be decided in the next five years," said Ray Murray, chief of planning for the Western region of the National Park Service. "Will the emphasis be on protection, or will there be a more limited attempt to keep it the way it is? Hopefully, it's going to be a resource for the public for the future."

In a newsletter to be mailed this week to 2,860 people, mostly county residents, the National Park Service reveals that it is studying four ways of saving the Gaviota coast. The options range from a national seashore, where the National Park Service would purchase large chunks of land and manage them for the public to enjoy, to scenarios where the Park Service would have no authority to buy or manage land.

Also on the table is a status-quo alternative in which the county and nonprofit groups would attempt to stave off urbanization and purchase development rights from landowners, much as they have done in recent years with varying degrees of success. This alternative, park officials warned, would virtually ensure the ultimate loss of farmland to small ranches for the wealthy.

"The no-action alternative is a no-win for the Gaviota coast," Mr. Murray said. "Given the international marketplace for sites on the coast, you'd end up with a gradual attrition of the values, the open space and the natural landscape."

On Vandenberg Air Force Base, Mr. Murray said, the Park Service would lobby for a "reverter clause" -- federal legislation that automatically converts portions of the base to a national park, should they no longer be needed for military purposes.

"It may never come into play," Mr. Murray said. "But it's like taking out a long-term insurance policy."

In the meantime, he said, the National Park Service would seek ways to provide more public access to the base -- perhaps in guided tours.

After the National Park Service began its study of the Gaviota coast two years ago, a group of Gaviota landowners sued the agency, saying the study amounted to an illegal "taking" of their property. A federal court recently ruled in favor of the National Park Service; and the long-awaited study is expected to be released for public review this summer. It will include an analysis of the resources on the Gaviota coast and a recommendation on how to best preserve them.

Congress has the last word.

This week's newsletter contains maps that the public is invited to mark up with colored pencils, indicating what areas should get the highest priority for preservation. The maps and comments on the five alternatives, including the status-quo option, are due by March 8. They should be sent to the Gaviota Coast Feasibility Study Team, Planning and Partnerships, National Park Service, 1111 Jackson St. Suite 700; Oakland, CA 94607. Copies of the newsletter can be obtained by calling the National Park Service at (510) 817-1447. The agency is temporarily without e-mail or Internet access.

In the newsletter, the National Park Service emphasizes that it would have no regulatory authority over private land inside or outside of park boundaries on the coast; and that it would buy land only if authorized by Congress, only from willing sellers and only for fair market value.

The Hollister Ranch, a private enclave west of Gaviota, would be excluded from the boundaries of any national seashore or reserve. The ranch is a gated community, off-limits to the general public except by boat. The Hollister Ranch homeowners' association has assessed its members hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight a national park designation on the coast.

Of the four preservation alternatives, the National Park Service would have the highest profile in a national seashore, where the emphasis would be on buying land from willing sellers. Some land within the seashore boundaries -- perhaps more than half -- would remain in private hands, National Park Service officials said.

At the Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, the only such park on the West Coast, the National Park Service owns 64,500 of 71,000 acres. At the Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts, the National Park Service owns 27,500 of 43,500 acres.

"We've envisioned all along that if there is a National Park Service presence in the Gaviota area, there would need to be a mix of ownership and conservation strategies," said Martha Crusius, a National Park Service planner. "It's not feasible to have a buy-everything approach. It doesn't work politically and it doesn't work financially."

A second option is a national preserve, where hunting on federal land would be allowed. The boundaries might be larger than for a seashore; but the National Park Service would own less of the land.

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreational Area is a national preserve; and three-quarters of the land remains in private hands. Out of a total 150,000 acres, the National Park Service owns only 19,000.

In many cases, Mr. Murray said, a developer here will sell or donate a chunk of land to a land trust and then build a few homes on the rest.

"People are building down in the canyon and on the ridgesides," Mr. Murray said. "All of that subdivision activity is the result of compromise."

A third preservation option under study for the Gaviota coast is a national reserve. Here, the National Park Service would own little land and the reserve would be managed by a congressionally chartered local board of directors. The emphasis would be on purchasing development rights and most of the land would remain in private ownership.

One such park on the West Coast is the Ebey's Landing National Historic Reserve, a farming region on an island off Washington state. The National Park Service owns 1,400 acres of a total 19,000.

A final option, the National Park Service said, is for the state and Santa Barbara County to come up with stronger programs to promote new trails and better public access on the coast; and help farmers and ranchers stay in business. A Gaviota coast land trust could be established and the county could tax its residents to provide funds for preserving land.

"Without some mechanism for buying development rights and land, the farmers on the coast will cave in," Mr. Murray said.

"It's going to take really big money from all sources to make this work," he said. "Somehow, we need to make the leap that there's a more rigorous means to protect agricultural production."