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Group's dream - the Gaviota Coast National Seashore

November 30, 1998

From the mountains to the beach, the treasures of the Gaviota coast would make a great national seashore - a kind of Big Sur for Southern California.

That, at least, is the future as envisioned by the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, a local nonprofit group formed to promote the idea.

The Gaviota Coast National Seashore, if it becomes a reality, would extend west from Coal Oil Point to Point Arguello, and south from the ridges of the Santa Ynez Mountains to the ocean, overlapping national forest land, Vandenberg Air Force Base and several state and county parks.

Much of the private property is dedicated to cattle grazing and avocado groves; and a number of the ranching families go back for generations. Together with Camp Pendleton near San Diego, the Gaviota area is one of the last stretches of undeveloped land on the coast of Southern California.

It is also a developer's dream.

Since 1996, when the conservancy was formed, a major hotel has begun construction at Haskell's Beach; a golf course is set to break ground just up the coast; and the Monarch Point Reserve, a project of 155 luxury homes, has been approved at Ellwood Shores - all west of Coal Oil Point.

With no time to lose, the conservancy has launched a public campaign, appealing to property owners, politicians and private land trusts to help save the coastline.``There is definitely a sense of urgency,'' said Mike Lunsford, a state park ranger and conservancy spokesman. ``It's the vision we have that spurs us on. All you have to do is look south of here, and you'll know what the destiny of the last rural remnant of the Southern California coastline is, unless we do something soon."

At the group's request, Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, will seek funding next spring for a National Park Service study to determine whether the Gaviota coast qualifies for preservation as a national seashore.

In addition, Santa Barbara County will spend $60,000 to take an inventory of the natural resources along the Gaviota coast and determine which locations should be saved first.

Earlier this month, the conservancy organized a tour of the coast for 25 representatives of federal, state and county parks; the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary; the state Coastal Conservancy; and private groups, including the San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land, the nonprofit organization that helped save the former Wilcox property in Santa Barbara.

UCSB biologists were on hand to explain how the Gaviota area marks the boundary between the moist, cool climate of Northern California and the drier, warmer climate of Southern California. In the chaparral, the sandstone, the grasslands and the canyons of this corner of the continent, they said, live plants and animals that are found nowhere else.

Archaeologists described a place rich in cultural history, with between 2,000 and 3,000 Chumash living in 10 towns along the coast when the Europeans arrived. One of these towns, on private land in Dos Pueblos Canyon, had 100 houses and is believed to have been the largest Chumash town anywhere.

The tour group made stops at the 550-acre La Paloma Ranch, owned by the Hvolboll family, north of Refugio Beach; and at the 800-acre Arroyo Hondo Ranch belonging to J.

J. Hollister, next to the county landfill at Tajiguas.

Hollister and the Hvolbolls are negotiating with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, a nonprofit group, to see whether they could be compensated for some of the value in their land without selling it outright.

A model for the conservancy is the Point Reyes National Seashore north of San Francisco, the only national seashore on the West Coast. Here, the property owners sold their development rights to the public for a park.

It is much cheaper for a public agency to buy development rights than to buy land. The purchase lowers the value of a property, but the owner is compensated for it. Thus, he can extract some cash while still retaining the title to his land. In return, he relinquishes the right ever to develop it.

On the tour, the Hvolbolls recalled how their family had raised walnuts, lima beans, tomatoes and peas on the property. They said they wanted their ranching tradition to continue, if only they could find some way to avoid the crippling inheritance taxes.``Our objective, after 130 years and five generations, would be to have our ranch last that much time into the future,'' Eric Hvolboll said.

Hollister, in turn, said he was trying to save his canyon property as a park.``We've tried avocados, cattle - everything we know how - and it's just too small,'' he said in an interview. ``I'm calling attention to the county and to anyone who wants to listen, that there are lands that are too precious for agriculture.``This canyon is a small Yosemite. It has a gorgeous old adobe, a 5,000-year-old Indian site, sycamores, oak woodlands, endangered species and a beach. I mean, wow! Pristine-ness has to have a value."

Added Hollister: ``If you sell this thing to a Los Angeles rich person, he'll want to put a wannabe castle up there. He could close the gate and live happily ever after."

But Hollister and the Hvolbolls represent only a fraction of the property owners in Gaviota. Oil giants such as Chevron, Texaco, Exxon and the Atlantic Richfield Co. (Arco) are among the rest.

The area is zoned for agriculture and lies outside the urban boundary of Goleta, set by the county Board of Supervisors at Winchester Canyon Road. The state Coastal Act severely restricts the urbanization of such land, but some landowners have found a way.

Chevron built an oil and gas processing plant at Gaviota during the 1980s and is now selling it because of disappointing revenues. Today, the county concedes it was a mistake to allow such an intensive industrial use along a scenic shoreline.

In 1993, Arco won county approval for a golf course on land zoned for agriculture west of the Ellwood Pier. After years of court battles, the golf course is ready to go ahead. Next door, the $200 million Santa Barbara Club Resort and Spa, formerly the Hyatt project, is under construction at Goleta's urban boundary line.``Certain decision-makers don't seem to care about urbanizing the Gaviota coast,'' said Linda Krop, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Center, a public-interest law firm that sued the county over the Arco project and lost.``Cumulatively, we're starting to subdivide it. The precedent that was set by the golf course was horrible."

At Naples, just to the west, the Morehart family sued for the right to apply for 275 homes on 600 acres, though their agricultural zoning allowed only six homes. The state Supreme Court ruled that the county could not force the Moreharts to merge postage-stamp-sized lots that were based on antiquated subdivision maps. Settlement negotiations are ongoing.

Continuing westward near El Capitan Beach, the Las Varas Ranch has submitted a preliminary application to the county for a guest ranch with 45 cottages, a restaurant and accessory buildings.

The largest private property between Goleta and Gaviota is the 3,700-acre Rancho Tajiguas, which belongs to MAZ Properties Inc. of Los Angeles. The Hearst Corp. also owns a parcel of this land. MAZ Properties has applied to the county for a lot-line adjustment that would more than double the development potential of the land, from seven lots to 16.

Finally, the county itself has proposed a controversial project on the coast: an expansion of its South Coast landfill at Tajiguas, near the small community of Arroyo Quemada.

With or without the designation of a national seashore, conservancy supporters know it will not be easy to forge the necessary partnerships - or find the millions of dollars it will take - to save the Gaviota coast.``It's a real big, difficult challenge,'' said Bob Keats, the conservancy president. ``Clearly, people want to see these places preserved. But we've had a Board of Supervisors that has done just the opposite of what the people wanted. There's a heritage here that's on the verge of being lost. We have an opportunity right here, right now, to make history."