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Activists say no to Naples

Residents ask county to reject plan to build 88 homes near untamed coast.

12/14/99 By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER
mburns@newspress.com

A number of alarmed residents Monday urged the county Board of Supervisors not to sign off on a proposal for a preserve and 88 homes at Naples, saying it would jeopardize their campaign to save the Gaviota Coast.

The speakers, many of them from the Surfrider Foundation, a national environmentalist group, said they did not want the coast to become like Palos Verdes or Shell Beach or Ventura.

"It breaks my heart to see everywhere I lived turned into megacities," said Alannah Godwin, a Surfrider member and third-generation Californian. "We want the property to be a parkland. Let the animals live there."

Under the proposal for Naples, the Morehart family of Carpinteria, which owns 485 acres just west of Goleta's urban boundary, would sell the property to Matt Osgood, an Orange County developer. Osgood, in turn, would have until Feb. 15 to sell 222 acres south of 101 to a government or nonprofit group for a preserve. Osgood could then apply to the county for the right to build 88 homes on 263 acres north of 101.

Several speakers expressed concern Monday about the extension of water and sewer lines into agricultural land for the proposed new homes.

"Once leapfrog development is approved, urban development inevitably fills in behind it," said Bob Keats, a founder of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a local group that is working to preserve a stretch of land from Coal Oil Point near Isla Vista to Point Sal near Guadalupe. Congress recently authorized a study to determine whether the coast could qualify for preservation as a national seashore.

The Naples proposal was negotiated by the lawyers for all parties in an effort to resolve a 15-year dispute over the development potential on the property. The Moreharts claim the right to 400 legal lots based on a map that was drawn in 1888. Modern-day zoning allows only agricultural use and four homes at Naples -- but the state Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that the county could not hold the Moreharts to today's rules.

On Monday, Supervisors Tom Urbanske and Gail Marshall spoke in favor of the proposed memorandum of understanding as a way to reach a compromise with the family and fend off more court battles. As a result of the Supreme Court decision, Jack and Frances Morehart are already building one home at Naples, north of 101.

"It's very scary to me to think what the property could look like and probably will look like without some negotiation," said Marshall, whose district includes the Gaviota Coast. "The seductive aspect of an MOU is the certainty that it provides."

Urbanske, representing the Santa Maria Valley, noted that the proposal would not require the county to approve 88 homes, but rather to review the project.

"It's pretty obvious to me there have to be some compromise solutions," Urbanske said. "I would support the MOU, whether it's a good one or not. It allows the dialogue to take place. It doesn't guarantee anybody anything."

A public workshop on the proposal will be scheduled by the county for early January. The board will hold another public hearing Jan. 18 on Naples. If the deal goes forward, the proposal for 88 homes would undergo environmental review for at least a year; and the state Coastal Commission would have the final say.

Osgood, who is president of Vintage Communities Inc. of Costa Mesa, told the board Monday that he had already purchased 40 acres at Naples and had an option to buy the rest. The Trust for Public Land, a national conservationist group that helped Santa Barbarans purchase the former Wilcox property, is negotiating with Osgood to buy the 222 acres south of 101.

"The opportunity is before us to seize the day," Osgood said. "I am hoping for an approach to the review process that is based on understanding and trust. I am the president of a development company, yet I do have a heart for the land."

Les Freeman, whose family has ranched at Refugio Canyon for generations, spoke in favor of the proposal, though he said he wished no homes would be built on the Gaviota Coast. Freeman recently sold his development rights on 600 acres to a land trust, ensuring that the property will remain in agriculture.

John Patton, the director of the county Planning and Development Department, said that the final number of homes at Naples would be limited by sandy soils, streams running through the property, and required setbacks from the ocean bluffs. Because of county policies, some land also would have to be set aside for agriculture, Patton said.

Given these constraints, some residents wondered whether more than 88 homes could be built on the entire property anyway. Why, they asked, should the public pay Osgood for the south side of 101, ensuring that his future mansions on the north side would have beautiful views?

"It appears that the community gains little and gives up a lot," said Cynthia Brock, who lives in Ellwood. "The developer is not offering to donate land."

Mark Morey of Surfrider urged the board not to follow the example of Ventura. There should be a moratorium on new development, he said, until the federal study of the national seashore concept is complete.

"Ventura woke up with a strip-mall-sized hangover," Morey said. "We have an opportunity to be the pride of the nation or share in its overwhelming embarrassment. You decide."

Finally, Patton reviewed the alternatives, should the board reject the Moreharts'proposal. He said the county would probably have to approve an unknown number of homes in a haphazard pattern on both sides of the freeway; or the county could deny all development and risk losing another court fight; or the entire property, which is estimated to cost between $14 million and $18 million, could be purchased for public use.

Another option, Patton said, would be for the county to swap the development rights at Naples and instead give the developer the right to build a large number of homes somewhere in Goleta, such as the Bishop Ranch or More Mesa.