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County OK's Naples deal

Activists continue to dispute Gaviota coast project

January 25, 2000

Won over by the prospect of preserving 222 acres on the scenic Gaviota coast, the county Board of Supervisors approved a deal Monday that could lead to significant development at Naples, 2 miles west of Goleta's urban boundary.

The 4-1 vote, with board Chairwoman Susan Rose dissenting, allows Orange County developer Matt Osgood to apply to build up to 88 luxury homes on 263 acres of grazing land north of Highway 101, just west of the Arco golf course site and the still-unfinished Bacara Resort & Spa.

First, however, a nonprofit group or government agency must sign an agreement with Osgood for the purchase of the 222 acres on the south side of the highway at Naples as a public preserve.

Supervisor Gail Marshall, whose 3rd District includes much of the historic ranchland that makes up the Gaviota coast, initially proposed the preservation trade-off when negotiations with the Morehart family of Carpinteria, the owners of Naples, came to a standstill a year ago.

Monday, saying she had struggled over her decision, Marshall reminded the largely antagonistic audience of environmentalists that the Moreharts had won a lawsuit against the county in which they claimed hundreds of legal lots at Naples, based on an 1888 subdivision map. Modern zoning allows only agricultural use and one home per 100 acres -- or a total of five homes at Naples. But the county failed in its attempts to force the Moreharts to merge their antiquated lots.

"It's not a slam-dunk, any way you look at it," Marshall said of the agreement, also called a memorandum of understanding. "The county has recognized 233 legal lots at Naples. We've already lost one case to merge the lots. I don't want to see any development on the Gaviota coast either, but I'm not really sure what our options are."

Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, who represents eastern Santa Barbara, Montecito, Summerland and Carpinteria, called the vote "one of the more excruciating aspects of my work."

"We all share the vision," she told the unhappy crowd, "but in this case we are faced with ongoing realities that limit our options."

North County Supervisors Tom Urbanske and Joni Gray said they were voting in favor of the plan in deference to Marshall and Schwartz.

The Naples vote came to the board at an awkward moment, just two months after Congress authorized funds for a National Park Service study of the picturesque coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Sal. The study, which is expected to take a year, will determine whether the natural and historical resources of the coast meet the criteria for preservation as a national seashore.

Rose, who represents eastern Goleta and part of Santa Barbara, said that despite the chance to protect 222 acres at Naples, she could not support the construction of homes there. It would open the door to the urbanization of rural lands, potentially introducing sewer lines into an undeveloped ranching area, she said.

"In reality, we'd be extending the urban boundary line," Rose said. "I don't believe that development here is inevitable. I'm trying to figure out how my community benefits, and I don't see how. The bottom line is, I think we need an overall strategy for the Gaviota coast, and I don't think this is it."

Rose was applauded by a large group of Surfrider Foundation members and other residents who urged the board to hold the western boundary of Goleta at the Winchester Commons housing tract and not approve leapfrog development at Naples. They questioned whether millions of dollars should be spent to buy grazing land south of 101 outright, when a better course might be to purchase the development rights only.

"This is a terrible precedent -- an expedient agreement born of fear and intimidation," said Nathan Post of Surfrider. "It will ultimately serve no one but the Moreharts and those who seek to develop the Gaviota coast."

Cathy Rose of Santa Barbara said: "In 60 years, I've witnessed the filling up of much of the open land in Southern California, and I've felt deep grief. You can provide a hope. Start to act out a dream that is not impossible and begin the 21st century in a spirit that favors preservation."

Under the terms of the agreement, the Moreharts will suspend their 15-year court battle against the county and sell Naples to Osgood. The Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation group, is negotiating with Osgood for the purchase of the 222 acres; the price has not been made public. The agreement between Osgood and the trust must be signed by Feb. 15, or the whole deal is off.

Matt Morehart, who attended Monday's hearing, said he could understand people's frustration, but believed the county had made a good decision.

"I think that 88 homes is a windfall for the environmentalist movement and they should be happy with that," Morehart said. "It should not be discarded just because a developer comes up with it."

Most of the major South Coast environmentalist groups, including the Citizens Planning Association, the Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Center and the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, did not oppose the Naples proposal. Whatever happens north of 101 will depend on lengthy environmental review and public hearings; and there is a general view -- or hope -- in the environmentalist camp that Osgood will not end up building 88 homes.

Some environmentalists favor the transfer of development rights from the north side to a property within the urbanized South Coast. Many believe public money will someday be available to buy the northern parcel at Naples -- although Osgood has said he is not willing to sell it.

"We'll continue to reach out to the community to understand the issues," Osgood said after Monday's hearing. "I've appreciated even people who are opposed to any development who have come forward and shared their views." Associated Press News Wire