Goleta Resolves Decades-Old Conflict, Preserves Coastline in Perpetuity

The Gaviota Coast in Santa Barbara County constitutes approximately 15 percent of Southern California’s shoreline but represents nearly half of its remaining rural coast. This stretch of the coastline offers unspoiled views, numerous recreation opportunities and a refuge for wildlife populations that have been severely reduced or eliminated from much of their former range. One undeveloped area at the southern gateway to the Gaviota Coast, a scenic 137-acre property in Goleta known as Ellwood Mesa, is treasured by residents and visitors for its beauty and abundant recreational opportunities.

Preserving Ellwood Mesa became one of the top priorities for the newly elected city council when the City of Goleta incorporated in February 2002. To achieve this goal, the city forged a public-private partnership with the owners of Ellwood Mesa, Santa Barbara Development Partners (SBDP), along with Comstock Homes (the potential developer) and the Trust for Public Land. With the help of Friends of the Ellwood Coast and other community groups, this effort resulted in a creative solution that preserved Ellwood Mesa while providing for residential development on nearby city-owned property.

Addressing a Long-Standing Land Use Conflict

Although the Ellwood Mesa property was privately owned and zoned for residential development, prescriptive rights allowed public access through the property. Its proximity to residential neighborhoods, a city park and the University of California allowed for extensive recreational use, including biking, trail running, surfing, bird-watching and the quiet enjoyment of nature.

But the property’s beautiful shoreline location made it attractive for development, and the divergent interests of developers and public users of Ellwood Mesa presented a long-standing land use conflict. Over the past few decades, several development projects were attempted, but each faced strong resistance from the public and environmental groups, meeting with failure and subsequent litigation.

Attempts to secure public ownership of Ellwood Mesa were similarly unsuccessful. During the late 1980s, the county approached the owner with an offer to purchase the property. The owner was unwilling to sell to a public agency. Instead, in 1991, Santa Barbara County used nearly $3 million to purchase the adjacent, less environmentally sensitive Santa Barbara Shores Park property.

Land Exchange Concept Gains Support

By 2002, Ellwood Mesa had changed hands, but a public purchase of the site did not appear to be a viable option because of the property’s $45 million price tag. A community group dedicated to preserving the site had suggested a land exchange whereby the proposed residential project would be relocated to a less environmentally sensitive portion of the city’s Santa Barbara Shores Park. In turn, Ellwood Mesa would be conveyed to the City of Goleta for public open space.

This proposed solution gained momentum, and in February 2003, SBDP and Comstock Homes committed to the land exchange idea. Yet obstacles remained. Ellwood Mesa’s appraised value exceeded the value of the Santa Barbara Shores Park exchange parcel by approximately $20 million. So the Trust for Public Land agreed to partner with the City of Goleta in the fund-raising effort.

Together with Friends of the Ellwood Coast, the trust raised approximately $8 million in private donations, including $5 million from the Sperling family, $1million from local donor Wendy McCaw, and $1million from the Goleta Valley Land Trust. Hundreds of other donations were also received from community members who wanted to support Ellwood Mesa’s preservation.

More than $12 million was awarded to the project by public agencies, including the California Coastal Conservancy, the California Wildlife Conservation Board, the Caltrans Environmental Enhancement and Mitigation Program, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, and the County of Santa Barbara Coastal Resources Enhancement Fund.      

To preserve Ellwood Mesa, the City of Goleta joined with the County of Santa Barbara and the University of California, Santa Barbara, to create a multi-jurisdictional Open Space Plan for the Ellwood-Devereux Coast. The plan encompassed several goals:

  • Reduce the amount of residential development near coastal bluffs;
  • Relocate development further inland; and
  • Establish a contiguous 652-acre open space area along the shoreline for resource protection, public access and recreation. 

A draft Ellwood-Devereux Coast Open Space and Habitat Management Plan was published in March 2004.

In July 2004, the Goleta City Council granted approval of the proposed residential development on the exchange parcel. With the necessary funds raised by December 2004, the city’s approval of the Comstock Homes development and publication of the draft open space plan, the preservation of Ellwood Mesa looked certain.

A Winning Outcome for All Parties

The California Coastal Commission approved both items unanimously at its January 2005 meeting, and on Feb. 4, 2005, the City of Goleta assumed ownership of the Ellwood Mesa property, ensuring its protection in perpetuity. Comstock Homes, in turn, became the owner of a 36-acre portion of the Santa Barbara Shores Park intended for residential development. Goleta Mayor Jean Blois called the preservation of Ellwood Mesa “one of the city’s most significant accomplishments since incorporation three years ago.”    

In an era when cities’ desires to develop coastal parks and preserve open spaces are challenged by extremely high land costs, the preservation of Ellwood Mesa represents a significant investment in the new city’s ecosystem and recreational infrastructure.

This investment produced several important results. First, Ellwood Mesa will be permanently preserved as open space, ensuring the protection of its biological and recreational resources. Second, the successful land exchange also achieved support from all involved parties and resolved a decades-old community conflict about land use. Finally, the preservation of Ellwood Mesa provides a centerpiece for a larger contiguous open space area along the Ellwood-Devereux Coast.

The Ellwood Mesa project offers lessons for other cities facing the difficult task of balancing conflicting interests in land use. Both private development and environmental preservation can be achieved through a common commitment to sustainable development and protecting natural resources.

The City of Goleta won an Award for Excellence for this project in the Planning and Environmental Quality category of the 2005 California Cities Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more about the award program, visit www.cacities.org/helenputnam.

This article appears in the March 2006 issue of Western City
Did you like what you read here? Subscribe to Western City