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Capps wants to preserve Gaviota Coast


In a critical first step toward the conservation of the Gaviota Coast, Congresswoman Lois Capps is proposing legislation for a National Park Service study of the scenic shoreline -- a measure that the county Board of Supervisors enthusiastically endorsed on Tuesday.

"You have the best feel for our district," Supervisor Tom Urbanske of Santa Maria told Capps, in lauding her proposal.

Capps' legislation would authorize the expenditure of $75,000 for the Park Service to investigate whether 45 miles along the coast, from Coal Oil Point to Point Arguello, including all the land between the beach and the mountain peaks, could qualify as a national seashore.

The federal funding would match $75,000 in money raised in California. Already, the county and the Goleta Valley Land Trust have each contributed $25,000; and a private foundation has been approached for the rest.

In her remarks to the board, Capps, a Democrat from Santa Barbara, spoke of the convergence of northern and southern ocean currents at Point Conception, and the hundreds of species of birds, plants and animals that flourish in this transition zone.

Key to the success of the seashore, she said, is the support of 100 families who have farmed crops and run cattle in Gaviota for generations.

"The Gaviota Coast is one of the largest and most spectacular undeveloped coastal areas in California," Capps said. "I need not explain the threat that urban sprawl and development pose to those resources."

Capps told the board that the Park Service already had designated Gaviota as one of its top priority projects. There is only one national seashore on the West Coast, at Point Reyes, north of San Francisco. By contrast, there are seven national seashores on the East Coast.

In a model that is considered to have merit for Gaviota, cattle operations continue at Point Reyes under a public-private partnership: the federal government purchased the housing development rights of families who agreed to remain in ranching in perpetuity.

To qualify for a national seashore designation, the Gaviota Coast would have to be determined by the Park Service to offer superlative opportunities for recreation, to be largely unspoiled and to possess "exceptional value or quality in illustrating the natural or cultural themes of our nation's heritage."

At Tuesday's hearing, Frank Alegria, a Refugio Canyon avocado rancher, said he supported Capps' initiative and hoped his children could continue the family's 100-year tradition on the land.

But while families like Alegria's represent the largest number of people living in the Gaviota area, they do not signify most of the land holdings. Some of the largest parcels are owned by Chevron, Texaco, Exxon, Arco, the Hearst Corp. and MAZ Properties, an investment group based in Los Angeles.

Recent development proposals for the coast have included a golf course and a guest ranch with 45 cottages and a restaurant. In the 1980s, Chevron built a giant oil-and-gas processing plant at Gaviota; and just west of Coal Oil Point, the 400-room Santa Barbara Spa and Resort is under construction today at Haskell's Beach.

Supervisor Gail Marshall, whose 3rd District includes the Gaviota Coast as well as the agricultural Santa Ynez Valley, said she was excited about the prospect of working with private landowners.

"This is not about coming in and taking land," Marshall said. "This is us going into partnership so we can keep this stretch of land as pristine as possible."

The supporters of Capps' legislation include the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, which first proposed saving the coast in 1991; the Environmental Defense Center, and the League of Women Voters.

"When this was first broached as an idea, it seemed like a long shot, to say the least," said 1st District Supervisor Naomi Schwartz.

"If we can help to move forward and secure this incredible coastline, I think we will all have felt our time was well spent," Schwartz said.