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To preserve and protect?

There is no consensus among environmentalists over a proposal for Naples that would develop some land and save the rest.

January11, 2000

A developer's offer to sell coastal land at Naples as a preserve in return for building up to 88 homes north of Highway 101 is encountering a mixture of rejection, acceptance and just plain confusion in the local environmentalist camp.

For members of the Surfrider Foundation, the course is clear: The county Board of Supervisors should vote "no" when it meets Jan. 18 to consider a memorandum of understanding for development at Naples. Surfrider regards the potential homes as a "leapfrog" project, a kind of de facto extension of the boundary of suburban Goleta two miles to the west.

"It's just going to look like Malibu -- a bunch of mansions all along the coast," said Keith Zandona, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider. "I know I'm in a position that's probably unrealistic. But I'm very, very leery of the whole thing."

But Santa Barbara's Environmental Defense Center wants the supervisors to vote for the agreement. The center views the arrangement as a chance to save oceanfront land south of 101 from development. As for the north side, the center believes it would be easier to deal with one developer and 88 homes than with the 30 owners who claim 400 lots for homes at Naples.

"We're concerned about piecemeal, haphazard development," said Linda Krop, an Environmental Defense Center attorney. "With the memorandum of understanding, we certainly won't be worse off than we are now; and we might be better off by opening up a process that allows the county to look at all the options. We're talking about a process, not a project."

The Gaviota Coast Conservancy, which is promoting the preservation of the entire shoreline from Coal Oil Point near Isla Vista to Point Sal near Guadalupe, is taking a neutral position on the Naples proposal. Both the conservancy and the Environmental Defense Center hope that if the deal goes forward, the number of homes north of 101 will be scaled down. In any case, the state Coastal Commission has the final say.

"The reality is that some homes will be built at Naples, short of huge sums of money coming along right now," said Mike Lunsford, the conservancy president. "It's difficult for many people to accept that there are development rights out there that the county must honor. We are attempting to facilitate a collaborative approach, working with the government, private landowners and various community groups to try to understand what's the best approach at Naples. We don't know what that is yet."

The conservancy board itself cannot agree on the proposed 88 homes north of 101, Lunsford said. What if, in a few years from now, the state Legislature and Congress find the money to buy a lot of land on the Gaviota Coast, he asked.

"What we're hoping is that we don't make the wrong judgments now and find out later that if we'd waited, we could have come up with a better result," Lunsford said. "This is a very delicate thing. There is not unanimity, even in our own organization. There's doubt and concern."

Meanwhile, Matt Osgood, the Naples developer and the president of Vintage Communities Inc. of Costa Mesa, is having a hard time understanding why anyone would object to his plan for the scenic 485-acre property. Osgood says he is offering to sell 222 acres on the south side of 101 at below-market price to the Trust for Public Land, a national conservationist group based in San Francisco. The negotiations are private; and the deadline for the trust to sign a purchase agreement is Feb. 15.

"I don't know why people are so upset with the memorandum of understanding," Osgood said. "I've taken an enormous risk to do what I'm doing. I'll be proud if we can pull this one off. There's joy in my heart to think we could preserve that much land."

Naples lies on grazing land just west of the proposed Arco golf course site and the still-unfinished Bacara Resort & Spa. The property has about 30 owners, most of them members of the Morehart family of Carpinteria. The owners' claim to 400 lots is based on an 1888 subdivision map for a paper township called Naples-by-the-Sea.

The present zoning is agricultural, allowing one home per 100 acres, or five homes in total. Over the years, the county tried and failed to force the Moreharts to merge their undersized lots to comply with modern zoning. After the Moreharts won a lawsuit on the merger question, the county recognized 233 legal lots at Naples, though approval of homes on all of these lots was not guaranteed.

Osgood's offer is the first at Naples to come under public scrutiny in 15 years of lawsuits and closed-door negotiations. Under the proposed three-way agreement, Osgood would buy most of Naples from the Moreharts; and he would sell 222 acres south of the freeway to a government agency or private land trust. In return, the county would give Osgood the right to apply for 88 homes on 263 acres on the north side of 101.

Approval of 88 homes would not be guaranteed. A thorough environmental report would be prepared and numerous public hearings would be held on the project.

One home is already under construction on 3.7 acres on the north side of 101, on the lot that was the basis for the Moreharts' original lawsuit. Osgood is building the house and plans to use it as a part-time residence.

As for the question of leapfrog development, county officials contend that it does not apply to Naples, for no other property on the Gaviota Coast has nearly as many lots as Naples.

"Nothing else comes close to this density," said Deputy County Counsel Alan Seltzer. "Naples can't be replicated. In my mind, this is a proposal that has a lot of possibilities. It allows us to explore a well-planned, limited development."

There are a number of environmental constraints on development at Naples. No homes can be built, for example, in the historic drainages at the edge of the bluffs, or in the railroad right-of-way south of 101. Nor can homes can be constructed within about 500 feet of the tracks or the freeway because of the noise from the trains and cars. Several seasonal creeks on the north parcel also are off-limits to development; and there are slopes in the northeastern portion of the property that are too steep for homes.

Osgood is proposing to scatter the 88 homes across the hillsides on the north side of the highway, keeping about 160 acres in open space and an agricultural preserve. Avocado, lemon and olive orchards would provide a buffer at both ends of the property and along the freeway. Some land would be set aside for grasslands and a community vineyard. The property already has been planted with rows of eucalyptus trees that would help block views of the homes from both sides of the freeway.

"If I go away," Osgood said, "you don't have one person in control of the land. There are at least 233 lots with varied ownership. That's the real threat to Naples."

Osgood's firm, Vintage Communities, specializes in the construction of luxury homes, primarily on the coast of Southern California. The company recently built 40 million-dollar homes at Rancho Palos Verdes and has other projects in Del Mar, Agoura, Westlake and Thousand Oaks. Vintage builds between 50 and 100 homes per year.

Osgood's previous firm, the San Juan Group, oversaw the development of 2,000 homes ranging from a sales price of $200,000 to $600,000 in the Las Flores community in southern Orange County. As part of this project, 400 acres of the 1,000-acre property were left undeveloped as open space. The San Juan Group merged with CCL Development Inc. in 1996 to form Vintage.