Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Supes approve Naples


To the chagrin of local environmentalists and the joy of a residential developer, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors yesterday narrowly approved a 71-home project at Naples, the eastern gateway to the Gaviota Coast.
The development, known as Santa Barbara Ranch, earned the board’s approval after a decade-long attempt by environmental groups, the developer and the county to agree on a project all could sign off on.

At the end of yesterday’s meeting, the developer and the board’s North County majority were left standing, saying they felt the project had arrived at that point, and with a slight amount of reluctance, gave it a nod of approval.
“As much as it pains me to do it,” said Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, who said during an earlier meeting he was born on the coast. “And as much as it pains you to hear it, I have to support the modified project.”
With that, the board voted 3-2, with Centeno, Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone and Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray supporting the project.
Firestone, whose district includes Naples and the Gaviota Coast, said the proposed project is far better than the alternative, which consists of 213 legal lots, divided into subdivisions more than a century ago.
Santa Barbara Ranch owner Matt Osgood told the board that in the event of a no vote, he’d have no problem resorting to the grid development, which he said would be “disastrous” for the coast.
While some environmental groups believe Osgood’s bark is louder than his bite, the developer insisted it was not, and none of the three supervisors who voted in favor of the project believed so either.
Gray said the grid development would cause Naples to look like Morro Bay, which she said was “ugly.”
“Naples is a Santa Barbara County treasure,” she said. “I think the proposed project is the best way to go to prevent the grid system and protect this coast.”
But that’s not the way Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf saw it.
Wolf said she’s particularly disappointed with the location of nine large homes proposed for the bluff-top overlooking the beach below. And the supervisor also said she didn’t appreciate being held “hostage” by the developer.
“I feel like I’m being held hostage and I don’t really like that,” Wolf said. “I’m just dumbfounded by the way that this is moving.”
Osgood said he was pleased with the vote, but didn’t know why it wasn’t unanimous. He reiterated that he is serious about building at Naples, even if it means a sprawling subdivision.
“It would have been devastating if we didn’t get the [vote] today,” he said. “Nobody’s believing the downside and it’s real.”
Twenty-one of the 71 proposed lots are located in the coastal zone and will be subject to approval from the California Coastal Commission.
Osgood said the commission would likely consider the Santa Barbara Ranch development a year from now. He said his team will begin working with the county on design elements for the homes north of Highway 101 as soon as possible.
However, Marc Chytilo, legal counsel for the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, said a lawsuit will be filed shortly challenging the inland portion of the project, which consists of 50 homes. He also said the Gaviota Coast Conservancy will appeal the coastal portion of the project to the Coastal Commission.
Between the lawsuit and appeal, Chytilo said the project could be delayed for years. In the meantime, Chytilo said he hopes Osgood makes some changes, most notably moving the bluff top homes somewhere else.
When asked whether or not moving the bluff top homes would be a possibility, Osgood’s attorney Stanley Lamport said parting ways with the value such lots command is not economically feasible.
He said Osgood has already promised to not build on 20 lots, which could be worth $40 million.
“We were just not prepared to relinquish more than that,” he said.
As for the board’s vote, Chytilo said he expected it, but is still disappointed that county officials didn’t do more to arrive at a better solution.
“They didn’t really try,” he said. “They all said their peace about how important the Gaviota Coast was to them and then they approved it.”
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board’s chair, joined Wolf in opposing the project. While he credited Osgood’s attempt to improve the project, he said it’s not yet good enough.
“I do think that Santa Barbara deserves better and I do think you need to do more,” he said.
One of the big hang-ups for Carbajal seemed to be the board’s decision two weeks ago to modify an existing memorandum of understanding (MOU) that was agreed upon with Osgood several years ago.
The MOU amendment essentially split Osgood’s project into two chunks, one designated coastal, the other inland.
As a result, only the coastal portion will be forced to undergo review by the Coastal Commission.
The board approved the amendment behind closed doors with a 3-2 vote. Carbajal and Wolf dissented.
While Osgood said the intention of the original MOU was for the project to be considered as two pieces, three former county supervisors involved in crafting the agreement sent a letter to the current Board of Supervisors yesterday saying they understood it differently.
Calling the board’s 3-2 vote to bifurcate the project an “October Surprise,” the letter stated the original MOU was, “The result of thoughtful negotiations with the landowner and unprecedented public participation.” It goes on to say the agreement “set the framework for a process leading to a fully mitigated development project.”
The letter, written by former First District Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, former Second District Supervisor Susan Rose and former Third District Supervisor Gail Marshal, said the division of the project “opens the door to prolonged litigation and piecemeal development along the Gaviota Coast.”
“I think the separation is a mistake,” Carbajal said. “I think there are some serious implications that could come from that.”
Over the past 10 years, the Santa Barbara Ranch development has been the topic of dozens of meetings, many of which have been heavily attended by the public.
Wolf, who was elected to the board in 2006, said she’s never seen a project so unanimously opposed by the public.
“I’ve never seen any issue come before the board when we’ve had 100 percent of the community come out against the project or in favor of a modification of the proposal,” she said. “That’s just unprecedented.”
When Centeno expressed his intent to vote in favor of the development, many of the public gathered let out a sigh, while some grumbled out loud.
One woman let her two signs fall to the floor. She then set up a Styrofoam grave stone at the back of the hearing room and scattered flowers along a seating aisle.
The tombstone read: “RIP Naples. Averted Township 1888-2008. They could have saved you.”
Though Chytilo said it’s impossible to know for sure the fate of Naples, he said he feels missteps on behalf the county throughout the process leave the environmental community with plenty of ammunition.
“I feel good about the hand we’ve got to play,” he said.

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