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Developer puts a price on Gaviota

Ads for Naples seek $580,000 per acre

8/25/02

By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

The ocean bluffs at Naples are for sale for up to $580,000 an acre, the highest asking price on record for vacant land on the Gaviota coast.

"Oceanfront land with incredible whitewater views up and down the coast," the ads say. "Private owners, developers and government agencies have fought to get their hands on this land for decades ... Land like this so near to Santa Barbara, one of the most desirable places to live in the world, is truly priceless."

Matt Osgood, the Orange County developer who wants to build luxury homes at Naples, says he is testing the market to see if he can find a buyer for large parcels. But environmentalist groups seeking to save the coast from urbanization are dismayed about the high price: they say it will be the nail in the coffin for their efforts to keep homes off the Naples bluffs.

"It increases the market value beyond anything that was previously imagined," said Bob Keats, a member of the Surfrider Foundation. "It will make it impossible for organizations such as the Trust for Public Land to buy it."

Mr. Osgood already has county approval to apply for up to 54 homes at Naples, a 485-acre property that spans both sides of Highway 101, just west of the Bacara Resort & Spa.

"If we can get buyers on earlier rather than later, it's a net gain for us, particularly if we can reduce the density south of 101," Mr. Osgood said. "I think those prices are fair. You can't get that lifestyle anywhere."

Critics say that by making a deal with Mr. Osgood earlier this year, the county unwittingly helped drive up the price of land for ranches farther up the coast.

"It increases the significance of getting federal funding through the national seashore process," Mr. Keats said. "Where else are you going to get that kind of money?"

The National Park Service is studying the entire Gaviota coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal to determine whether it merits inclusion in the park system. Potential park designations include a national seashore, national preserve or national historical area.

Two years ago, Mr. Osgood negotiated with the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization, for the purchase of 222 acres at Naples south of the freeway, but the deal fell through.

In ads running this month, Sotheby's International Realty and Kerry Mormann and Associates are listing a 30-acre parcel on the bluffs at Naples for $17 million; a 27-acre parcel for $11.5 million; and a 37-acre parcel with ocean views for $6 million.

If he finds buyers, Mr. Osgood said, he could reduce the homes on the south side of Naples from 16 to seven, including only four homes on the bluffs instead of nine.

Mr. Osgood said he also was prepared to sell the entire 222 acres on the south side of 101 for $50 million, or $225,000 per acre, to a single buyer.

By contrast, the 1,520-acre Las Varas Ranch farther west on the Gaviota coast was on the market two years ago for $65 million, or $43,000 per acre. The ranch was not sold.

County records show that Mr. Osgood paid $57,000 per acre in 1998 for a piece of Naples north of 101. He now owns 265 acres on the north side and 50 acres on the south side. He has an option to buy the rest by Oct. 1 from the Morehart family of Carpinteria.

Members of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a local citizens group that pushed for the National Park Service study, said that during the review of any future housing plan for Naples, the county must consider an option that leaves the bluffs alone.

"That's the area that needs to remain open for public access and views," said Mike Lunsford, the conservancy president. "The most ideal solution would be that we find a way to keep housing off of that oceanfront, and then buy it for the public."

But Mr. Osgood said, "It's just not going to happen like that."

"I'm allocating a lot of capital and taking a lot of risk to do significantly less than what we otherwise could do," he said. "For somebody to come in late and say they're going to propose alternatives on the back of a napkin is a bit naive. It's offensive when somebody who doesn't know your property comes and draws maps on it and says, 'Here's where I want a trail.'"

In several lawsuits against the county, the Morehart family claims the right to build more than 400 homes at Naples, based on a 1888 surveyor's map that established a paper township on the ranch.

The county Board of Supervisors entered into an agreement with Mr. Osgood in April, seeking to compromise on a plan for fewer homes, negotiate with one owner rather than many, and put an end to the lawsuits. Mr. Osgood has not yet signed the agreement. It does not guarantee that he can build 54 homes at Naples, but it allows him to submit applications and undergo environmental review and public hearings for up to 54 homes.

Meanwhile, real estate agents say they've been showing the Naples blufftop to a number of potential buyers.

"It looks at first glance like new high prices," said George Logan of Sotheby's. "But when you put it in the context of 30 flat, usable acres right on the coast, it fits in with some of the bigger ranches. You could have orchards, a horse operation and a house and be right on the ocean."