It’s a gray Thursday morning on the Gaviota coast and Matt Osgood is standing on an ocean bluff. Behind him, a flock of brown pelicans cruise and descend to the beach below. One can’t help but try to peer over the edge to see where they’re going.
“Don’t get too close,” Osgood warns. “It’s crumbling.”
The eroding cliff and the vacant mesa on top of it are part of Osgood’s property, which now stretches north of Highway 101 and into the foothills beyond. We’re standing at what Osgood calls “ground zero” — the original Naples township two miles west of Goleta.
Although largely empty but for a dozen or so cows, a few horses and the occasional wandering surfer, the Naples township has been at the center of a long-running land-use battle. Osgood has spent nearly 10 years trying to convince Santa Barbara County to let him build on the property; local environmentalists have spent at least that long working to keep it undeveloped. Plans for the project called “Santa Barbara Ranch” have gone from designs based on the township’s original “grid” scheme, with small plots on 485 acres along the highway, to the current “Alt 1B” plan, which sprinkles homes on 3,200 acres from the coast into the foothills.
The stakes are high: Gaviota coast properties are akin to Boardwalk and Park Place in the South Coast’s version of the Monopoly game. One home will cost millions of dollars. Osgood wants to build a whole community.
“What drives me is the opportunity of the legacy project,” he said.
But just when you think you have the whole developer/environmentalist thing worked out, the way it stereotypically works out all over the South Coast, Osgood points out that 2,600 of the 3,200 acres he has acquired — more than 81 percent — are going into preservation in perpetuity. For 72 homes, nine on the original Naples township coast and 63 in the foothills, he says, a good portion of the Gaviota coast will be in the hands of land trusts that will protect the openness of the area.
“I think it’s one of the unique opportunities in the state from both a preservation and a community standpoint,” Osgood said. “Where else can you have the ocean, lakes, mountains, equestrian and open spaces surrounding you and protect nature and have a place to hang out that’s minutes from State Street?”
According to Osgood’s representative, Jim Youngson, this isn’t the first time the developer has taken cues from the county and the public.
“This is not a conservative developer thing vs. a liberal no-growth thing,” said Youngson, pointing out the millions spent in design and redesign from layout to architecture to lessen the visual impact from Highway 101 and the merging of the small lots of the Naples township site into fewer, bigger lots. Legally, according to the Osgood camp, he is allowed to sell each of the lots in the township’s adopted map one by one to prospective developers, leading to piecemeal development concentrated on the Gaviota coast.
“Let’s be clear,” said Youngson. “These lots could be sold today.”
It’s this last bit of information that’s Osgood’s ace in the hole. The Naples township is based on an 1888 map that land speculator John Williams had drawn up for a 19th-century seaside resort modeled on the Italian city of the same name. Unfortunately for Williams, construction of the railroad that was to transport his future clients didn’t make it to the area on time and his dream was lost.
The map remained, however, and a century later was enforced by a state Supreme Court ruling when then-Naples property owner Jack Morehart and the county locked horns over his right to develop for housing what was considered agricultural property. Morehart won but later sold the bulk of his holdings to Osgood.
“I was thinking it would be a four- or five-year process,” Osgood said. While it is an option for him to revert to an earlier Memorandum of Understanding with the county that had his development concentrated on the original Naples townsite, he’s not willing to give up on his current plan.
“We would not be thrilled with the MOU or grid because we spent a lot of money to acquire the land for the alternative because the county and the Coastal Commission liked that direction,” he said. “It’s the largest private easement dedication in the history of the Gaviota coast.”
“I’m not saying that Matt’s Alt 1B design doesn’t have its benefits,” said Mike Lunsford, president of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, one of several groups in the 8-year-old Naples Coalition working to protect the area’s rural character. After years of butting heads, both the developer and the conservationist are on a first-name basis with each other.
For environmentalists, the stakes are also high. The Gaviota coast is one of the most unique and biodiverse regions on earth, and development could put numerous interconnected habitats at risk, as well as possibly endanger ancient Chumash cultural resources. And although the Santa Barbara Ranch project’s development as proposed takes up a relatively small fraction of the area, for many environmentalists, it’s the precedent that matters.
“It’s leapfrog development,” said Lunsford, adding that it could encourage more projects along Gaviota as well as the conversion of other ag land for residential development.
Earlier this summer, meanwhile, Naples Coalition attorney Marc Chytilo requested that the county Planning Commission reconsider a previous iteration of the Santa Barbara Ranch project — the MOU, which brings the home sites back into the viewshed and into the coast zone that they were just trying to take them out of. The commission rejected the request.
The reason for the request, Lunsford said, was that the Coastal Commission then would have a hand to play in the project if the homes were back in the coastal zone. Osgood’s plan to move the homes inland is seen by the anti-development coalition as less of an effort to compromise and more as an end run around the tighter Coastal Commission development regulations and a transfer of development rights that could occur for the more valuable properties in the coastal zone.
The foremost thing on 2nd District Planning Commissioner Cecilia Brown’s mind is what has been unofficially dubbed “The Naples Problem” — the right Osgood has to develop his property.
“That’s the thing we have to bear in mind,” she said. “Is Alt 1B the best thing we have out there? I don’t know yet. But we’re trying to come up with some compromise here.”
Some of the choices she and her colleagues face include sacrificing a portion of Gaviota to protect a larger piece, getting development back in the viewshed and development on the Gaviota coast anyway, a potential transfer of development rights, or in the worst case, the resumption of a lawsuit from Osgood that has been stayed to allow for the processing of this project.
Should the county approve Santa Barbara Ranch, it could face a lawsuit anyway from the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and its allies, or a voter referendum that might block or delay the county’s action.
“The Santa Barbara Ranch presents an anomaly,” said 3rd District Planning Commissioner C.J. Jackson, in whose district this project falls.
It’s not the case that development on this property will automatically lead to development all over the Gaviota coast, Jackson insists. “In this particular situation, the ability to impose a solution is constrained from the norm,” he said.
If all the zoning was agricultural, Jackson said, the county’s abilities might be different, but the subdivision map precludes other options the county might have considered.
“Then the question becomes ‘Can you arrive at a solution that produces as many benefits as possible?’” he said.