Despite concerns about public access and a precedent that could be set for growth on the largely undeveloped Gaviota Coast, the California Coastal Commission has sided with a developer and determined that a plan to build two mansions west of Goleta is consistent with Santa Barbara County's local coastal plan.
The decision came after several local environmental groups appealed a decision made by the county Board of Supervisors in February, which would allow two large homes to be built on undeveloped land on the eastern edge of the Gaviota Coast.
The Paradiso del Mare project would result in two residences on 142 acres — a 6,000-square-foot home on the coastal portion of the property and a 7,000-square-foot residence on the inland portion.
The property sits west of the Bacara Resort & Spa, and the project was approved by the county Planning Commission but appealed to the supervisors and eventually the Coastal Commission by environmentalists.
The project was heard by the Coastal Commission last Thursday at its hearing in Santa Barbara.
Environmental groups and the public have raised concerns about the potential for the project to damage a nesting area for white-tailed kites and disrupt a nearby seal rookery, as well as drought-related impacts and limited public access to the beach.
The Board of Supervisors ultimately voted unanimously to allow the project, however, saying that the public benefit would outweigh the drawbacks because the developer must include public-access easements for lateral and vertical access across the property, a parking lot for public use, 117 acres of open space, on-site habitat restoration and construction of a portion of the California Coastal Trail.
Several groups — the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the Santa Barbara Audubon Society — and marine mammal expert Peter Howorth appealed the board’s approvals.
However, on Thursday, eight of the 12 commissioners agreed with their staff and with Santa Barbara County staff that the project was consistent with the county's local coastal plan.
The commission found that the county's plan mitigated impacts to seals and white-tailed kites.
Kites are loyal to territories and not individual trees, and there are 300 potential nesting trees on the site with sufficient setbacks, staff said.
The site has been used informally for beach access on its western side — an access point known as Tomate West — and the county found that the beach access proposed on the eastern side of the property would be safer and give access to the same beach area and would even enhance public access in the long term.
The site has been home to extensive oil and gas production in the past, and is zoned for agriculture but hasn't been used for farming in 50 years.
Because of the unique history of the site, and the amount of open space that would be preserved, it would not set an adverse precedent, staff said.
Ellison Folk, staff attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, disagreed, and said that the Paradiso project would be the first of several residential development in the area and would set a precedent.
Chris Yelich, who is representing the developer of the property, also spoke, and said that "the appellant has definitely had an influence on our plan," noting that improvements to the project have resulted.
"It's been a difficult process over a number of years," he said, urging the commission to support the issue.
Commissioner Jana Zimmer gave extensive comments at the meeting, and said she believes the county "did an excellent job" on the project, but feared it would set a negative precedent for the area.
She expressed concern about growth because of the water line size and capacity to serve additional development, and urged commissioners to look further to preserve Tomate West as an access point for the beach.
"I think the problems are solvable," she said.
Commissioner Mark Vargas took a different view.
With two homes on six acres and 117 acres of open space, "I've never seen anything that good come before us," he said, adding that the access that would be put in would be much better for the public.
Commissioner Martha McClure said the argument that the public would lose access instead of gain it from the developer agreements was a moot point.
"We have public access now that I would interpret as trespassing," she said.
County residents concerned about development should take it up with the Board of Supervisors to update their local coastal plans to protect Gaviota more, not to penalize developers following the rules, she said.
A list of changes that would be made from the 2005 settlement from the developer was read, which would include not interfering with public access to the beach until construction begins, water use wouldn't exceed the minimum required by the Fire Department, and that a trail at Tomate West would be included in future Naples development.
Yelich agreed to the changes during the commission comments, which raised the concern of some commissioners, who said the public hadn't been properly noticed.
The commission ultimately voted 8-4 on the decision to move ahead.