Both Goleta city officials and the new owners of the Bacara Resort & Spa are looking forward to a “new chapter” in the historically rocky relationship between the luxury hotel and the small city.
“One of our highest priorities as new owners is establishing a positive relationship with the community and being a good neighbor both in Goleta and Santa Barbara,” Sarah Mancuso, vice president of Ohana Real Estate Investors, told Noozhawk.
Ohana, along with Rockpoint Group, acquired the 78-acre coastal property in western Goleta in July from Alvin Dworman, a New York-based developer who put the resort on the ground at the turn of the century after hundreds of millions of dollars and nearly 20 years of effort.
It was never an easy relationship between Dworman’s company, ADCO, and Santa Barbara County, which had jurisdiction over the area before Goleta’s 2002 incorporation. Former county Supervisor Bill Wallace, local environmental groups and neighbors struggled against proposals for development in the area, and the two sides remained in a deadlock until a deal was reached in the early 1990s that allowed for construction of a visitor-serving facility in the area.
The sore spot for locals was Haskell’s Beach, a favored surf spot that people in the know would hike to through secret but well-worn trails, boards tucked under their arms. Bacara, a 331-room luxury resort, was built over the beach, and locals feared the out-of-town developer would take over one of the Goleta area’s beloved beaches.
The tension over Haskell’s, if anything, seemed to escalate after Bacara opened. Visitors were spending upwards of $350 a night to stay in luxury accommodations and play at what looked like the hotel’s private beach. Development ran right up to the sand, with asphalt, a snack bar and restrooms where before only a gentle grassy slope led to the shore.
Despite the fact that Bacara became one of the city’s major employers and bed tax providers (revenue neutrality agreement with the county notwithstanding), one of the city’s earliest battles after incorporation was with Bacara Resort & Spa. Haskell’s Beach is the only beach within Goleta’s city limits; Goleta Beach, another popular visitor spot, remains in county territory.
Citizens and local groups were vocal when the resort built public parking near the tennis courts but put up measures to limit access to the parking (which also led to the beach), claiming violation of the Coastal Act, which requires open access to the state’s public beaches. The hotel was also accused of limiting public access by holding events close to or on the beach, barring its use by local visitors. Meanwhile, hotel supporters noted there was no easy public access to the beach — or parking for beachgoers, for that matter — before the resort was built.
The friction got even hotter when it looked like the hotel was dispatching security to follow people around in golf carts as they went to the beach. There was a reason for that, according to hotel management: Miscreants, possibly frustrated locals, were vandalizing the beachside structures. But when it was reported that one such golf cart had been following Goleta’s city founder and a former councilwoman, Jonny Wallis, around as she was taking a slow walk to the shore after hip surgery, the reason for security started to look flimsy to the locals.
In the intervening years, there continued to be a push-pull on both sides. Bacara requested several amendments to the city’s General Plan, one of which requested a redesignation of the shoreline and public beach to “private, with a public access easement,” a notion the City Council rejected, choosing instead to keep it designated “regional open space.”
Other amendments, however, paved the way for what was called the “completion phase” of Bacara development — hotel condominiums that would provide luxury extended-stay accommodations for visitors.
With a name like “Ohana,” which means “family” in Hawaiian, the pressure is on for the resort hotel’s new owner to fulfill the purpose implied by its name.
“The key component of Ohana’s plan for Bacara is to welcome the locals to the property, embrace the local business community and to participate actively in the community,” read a news release issued by the company. “Ohana has many exciting plans for the property, including improving upon the consistency of service, upgrading many of the guestrooms and modifying the concepts at some of the restaurants.”
What exactly those plans involve is not yet known but may be revealed in stakeholder meetings planned in the near future.
Meanwhile, city officials are optimistic. In October, the hotel plans to hold a community open house at which locals will have a chance to check out the grounds and sample local gourmet offerings made by Bacara chefs. Over the weekend, hotel employees participated in Coastal Cleanup Day.
“The city is thrilled to have such a reputable company managing such a remarkable property as Bacara,” City Manager Dan Singer said. “They are one of Goleta’s largest employers and taxpayers, and we look forward to a long-standing relationship with the new owners.”