Ending a contentious, years-long debate over the future of a very visible 240 acres of open space in Goleta, an agreement between the owner of Bishop Ranch and its possible developer has been terminated, Noozhawk learned late Tuesday afternoon.
The property owner, University Exchange Corp., officially informed the City of Goleta about its decision in a letter emailed late Tuesday afternoon to City Manager Dan Singer. In its letter, the UEC said it also is withdrawing all development-related applications for the property. (Scroll down the page to read the letter.)
The decision ends plans by expectant developer Michael Keston to transform the site, which sprawls across gently rolling hills north of Highway 101, between Los Carneros and Glen Annie roads and south of Cathedral Oaks Road.
Keston formed Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC to pursue residential and commercial development on the property, which is zoned for agricultural use. The UEC has owned 3,200 acres of ranch land in Santa Barbara County for more than 50 years and, since 1999, Keston has had an option agreement to purchase Bishop Ranch’s 240 acres within the Goleta city limits.
Nestled along a heavily traveled corridor near Camino Real Marketplace and Dos Pueblos High School, the undeveloped land is well-known among South Coast residents, many of whom have been vehemently opposed to Keston’s plans to build as many as 1,200 residential units there.
Keston’s most recent application to start the planning process — through General Plan amendments that would allow the public exercise to begin — was voted down unanimously by the Goleta City Council in September 2011. The council’s rejection marked the second time in four years that Bishop Ranch applications failed to get off the ground.
So what now?
The UEC and its co-owner, the Crown family, have no immediate plans to pursue a development project for Bishop Ranch, according to the letter sent to the city by the UEC’s attorney, Chip Wullbrandt of Price, Postel & Parma LLP. The letter said all development-related applications are being withdrawn.
“Needless to say, the future of the city’s largest undeveloped parcel of land has been, and likely will remain, the subject of much public concern and speculation,” Wullbrandt said in the letter.
“In the immediate future, however, UEC intends to focus on active agricultural use of the ‘upper ranch’ outside city limits. UEC looks forward to re-engaging with the city and the community in years to come concerning the future of the 239-acre parcel.”
UEC asked for an invoice of any money owed to the city as a result of last year’s proposed General Plan amendment process.
Wullbrandt said the company would be working to dismiss all ongoing litigation with the city related to Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC. In 2007, Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC sued the city to challenge its General Plan adoption, due to the agricultural zoning of the land in question. The UEC letter states that the matter was resolved with the council’s 2011 rejection of the request to initiate General Plan amendments for a rezoning.
Developing Bishop Ranch has been an active effort by Keston for more than a decade, although his project has never been supported by the city’s leaders or many of its residents.
Details of the property — its history, feasibility of farming, environmental review of development proposals — were laid out in the 2011 study by ICF International, the same consultant firm used for Goleta’s General Plan. The 492-page study, at a price of $85,000, was ordered by the City Council for a more thorough review and was paid for by the developer.
Bishop Ranch is the single largest privately owned parcel in Goleta. Historically, the land was used for cattle ranching and farming, and it passed through several hands before ending up with Chicagoan Henry Crown, of University Exchange Corp., in 1957.
UEC owns 3,200 acres of the former Corona del Mar ranch land, including the 240-acre Bishop Ranch property that Keston wanted to develop. In 1999, Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC acquired an interest to buy the lower Bishop Ranch property to pursue those plans.
While the property was used as a cattle and farming operation for decades, consultants believe the land hasn’t been actively farmed since 1975. Developers have argued that, despite the agricultural zoning, the land is not feasible for agricultural use.
Bishop Ranch was zoned for residential development in 1957, when Crown bought it, but Santa Barbara County rezoned it for agricultural use in 1980. The designation stuck with Goleta’s incorporation in 2002.
There are 67 acres of “prime” agricultural soil, the study concluded, but only enough water rights to support 25 acres of agriculture per year.
Despite that, it could be a long time — if ever — before the city is receptive to development of this scale on Goleta’s largest piece of open space.
In fact, Goleta’s first initiative in its short history of cityhood, directly targets potential development of the Bishop Ranch property.
The Goleta Agricultural Land Protection Initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot, proposed by The Goodland Coalition, would amend the city’s General Plan Land Use Map so that re-designating any agricultural land more than 10 acres in size would require voter approval. Bishop Ranch is the largest of six parcels in the city that would be affected by the initiative.
“After all these years, we’ve been sort of fighting to prevent this from being developed to 1,200 houses and lots of commercial space; to know, at least for now, that that’s off the table – it’s very exciting,” councilwoman Margaret Connell said of the news Tuesday.
“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after this, and how this will affect the vote for the Goodland Coalition initiative,” she added.
Councilman Michael Bennett said the agreement termination doesn’t mean anything since there aren’t any proposals in the works.
It would have been much more significant if the council hadn’t just shot down Keston’s latest effort, he added.
Bennett opposed the project twice, and his concerns stem from the belief that any plans for the 240-acre Bishop Ranch property should include the “bookend parcels” on either side, which make up about 50 acres.
Their reactions came Tuesday night after the evening council session, when they got the news from City Attorney Tim Giles.
The Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce has a panel discussion of the Farmland Initiative scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, where this news will likely come up, Chamber president Kristen Miller said.
The Chamber opposes the initiative and believes it will change the way local government and the land use planning process work.
Miller hopes this news will “derail efforts to push for Measure G,” she said Tuesday night.
The Chamber believes the initiative was proposed because of the potential Bishop Ranch project; now that development “is even more of a dead issue than it was,” the measure’s support could be impacted, she added.