Santa Rita Hills, stretching along Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc, is fast becoming known as one of the premier wine regions in California, drawing connoisseurs from all over the world to its tasting rooms.
But recently it also has been drawing some controversy over two proposed projects, one at La Purisima Golf Course, and another at the misnamed “Lakeview” Estates. Both projects, if approved, will bring urban development into rural areas, setting precedents for future development on agricultural land. To a certain extent, both involve buyer’s remorse. Landowners who knowingly brought property not zoned for the uses now proposed are seeking to make their investments more profitable.
La Purisima Golf Course was developed on land zoned for agriculture, which allows recreational uses like golf courses, but does not allow commercial development. Now that this golf course, like so many others across the nation, is no longer profitable, the owner wants to add an 80-room resort hotel with a restaurant, spa and 85 luxury condominiums. He presented his project to the county Planning Commission earlier this month for a “conceptual review.”
At the hearing I argued that “this is the wrong project at the wrong time in the wrong place.” Here’s why: First, the project, which consists of a hotel and restaurant, would bring large numbers of low-wage workers into a rural area at a time when affordable housing is nearly nonexistent and social services that support low-wage earners are being severely cut.
Second, the project is in direct conflict with the county’s Comprehensive Plan, and would require extensive changes. Piecemeal planning, which allows changes benefiting one project without looking at the change’s impact on the whole area, is the antithesis of good planning.
Third, the project would require rezoning agricultural land to commercial use at a time when viable agriculture is being threatened on all sides. Not only would it mean loss of agricultural lands, but it could also negatively affect surrounding ag operations.
The proposed changes at Lakeview Estates also threaten agriculture. Here, landowners of 35 40-acre parcels surrounded by agriculture are asking the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to create a Community Service District. This will allow them to develop land that, when purchased, they knew could not be developed.
Creating their own Community Service District would force neighboring farmers to give up some of their land to provide better road access. It would also bring amenities like water and sewers into the area, allowing parcel owners to build homes, which they currently cannot do. With homes, these parcels, which were bought well below market rate because they couldn’t be developed, would be worth millions of dollars. And this new development would negatively affect surrounding agriculture.
Viable, sustainable agriculture is threatened when urban development and increased population are brought into rural areas. Not only does it limit current ag operations — how often and when pesticides can be sprayed, for example — but future operations that neighbors might find offensive. Urban development also drives up land prices, and this, along with limits on production, sometimes leads farmers and ranchers to sell out to developers. When that happens, land uniquely suited for food production is lost, virtually forever.
Unfortunately, at La Purisima’s hearing, all of the commissioners but Cecelia Brown encouraged the landowner to pursue his project. Let’s hope LAFCO does a better job when it meets Feb. 7. Decisions preventing piecemeal planning and urban sprawl are all that separates Santa Barbara County from the fate suffered by other once-rural counties — now swallowed up by wall-to-wall development.