When Dr. Glynne Couvillion bought his piece of the Goleta Valley in 1978, he did so with an eye on his, and his family’s future.

“It was a long-term investment … it was my retirement plan,” said the retired eye surgeon, who purchased the land when it was zoned for residential use in the hopes that he could develop it. However, with a drought, a road, a land-use change and Goleta’s incorporation in the 30 years since he bought the tract, the future is not so clear for what is known as the Shelby property, 7400 Cathedral Oaks Road.

Further complicating the matter is the failure of plans for the neighboring Glen Annie Golf Course, a parcel of land whose fate has been linked to the future of the Shelby property, and what seems like a reluctance on the part of the city of Goleta to let go of its agricultural designation.

The issue brings up the question: how much of the Good Land really is good land, suitable for agriculture? It’s a question the city’s planners and property owners continue to grapple with today.

The Shelby property, then roughly 30 acres in northwestern Goleta, had a residential-zoning designation from Santa Barbara County when Couvillion bought it in the late 1970s. A property that once stretched from the low foothills north of the Goleta Valley south to where Hollister School is now located, the land was, like many properties in Goleta, used to farm avocados and lemons.

But when Couvillion bought the land, it was in limbo. An ongoing drought resulted in the Goleta Water District placing a moratorium on development some six years earlier, putting on hold any kind of development in the area. Meanwhile, the agricultural operations that remained consisted of stunted avocados and diseased lemon trees, Couvillion said.

The previous land owners also happened to be the last holdouts against a county plan to construct Cathedral Oaks Road, which bisects the northern Goleta Valley between Highway 154 on the east and Winchester Canyon on the west.

View Larger Map

An ag man himself, descended from a family of farmers in Louisiana, Couvillion tried to revive what may have once been viable cropland. Using his earnings as a surgeon, he was able to support the agricultural operations as he waited for the drought to turn the corner and the moratorium to lift.

“I enjoyed the farming,” he told Noozhawk recently. “I did everything I was supposed to do.”

Truckloads of good topsoil were brought in; mulch, fertilizer and other soil amendments added; rot-resistant avocado rootstock planted — any state-of-the-art measure implemented to compensate for the hard-packed clay and fine soils that had been detrimental to the proper drainage of crops on that parcel.

In 1980, the county rezoned his property as agriculture in its Goleta Community Plan, something Couvillion might have resisted, had he known it had happened.

“I didn’t even receive a certified letter,” he said.

A fairly new concept in the early 1980s, community land-use plans in California hadn’t reached the level of sophistication in public outreach that they have today. Meanwhile, neighborhoods were springing up around his property as the water moratorium was lifted and State Water made it possible to resume development.

Opting to wait out the 10 years until the county revisited its community plan, Couvillion decided to continue farming the avocados, looking to the day he could follow suit.

But the county didn’t change its designation and, in the meantime, Glen Annie Golf Course got its approvals. For the Shelby parcel, this meant no aerial pesticide spraying. An added challenge was the intensive watering necessary to maintain the golf greens and fairways. The water would percolate through the earth and saturate the adjacent Shelby property.

As if that wasn’t enough, heavy rains in the mid-1990s soaked the earth, making it impossible to grow crops. With the extension of Cathedral Oaks Road in 1997, the property was cut in half, the lower parcel eventually getting its residential designation and becoming the Crown Collection of single-family homes.

Fast forward to the present: the Shelby property is now 15 acres, and not viable for agriculture, say Couvillion and his representative, Jim Youngson of Terrain Consulting. Not viable, they said, in soil and in economy.

Furthermore, since its incorporation in 2002, Goleta had been reluctant to change the parcel’s zoning designation — part of an effort to prevent what it saw as unnecessary development citywide and keep the agricultural land it sees as essential.

According to Steve Chase, Goleta’s planning and environmental services director, at least part of the reason why the city hasn’t jumped to convert the ag-zoned Shelby property has to do with the General Plan, which has earmarked the Hollister Corridor for much of the future housing. Developments like Willow Springs and Village at Los Carneros, much of which has not even been completed yet, are in the works, delayed for market reasons.

“There’s upward of 1,000 residential units that could go into the Hollister Corridor,” said Chase.

The Shelby property’s location also presents a planning quagmire, said Chase. Located north of Cathedral Oaks Road at the edge of the city limits, the property sticks out like a thumb, and despite the presence of several residential neighborhoods around it, would not necessarily create a “symbiotic connection” with the rest of the area. In 2007, however, the Goleta City Council narrowly approved a request to initiate a General Plan amendment that could result in a change of land use.

Enter Glen Annie Golf Course, whose financial dire straits led its owner to propose a residential development last year. The city recommended that Couvillion work with Glen Annie to come up with a project that would benefit both the Shelby property and the financially embattled golf course.

That seemed to be the way to go, until the city council’s rejection of Glen Annie developer John Dewey’s plan for a housing project threw everything back up in the air.

“Now we’re back to where we started,” said Couvillion.

According to Chase, the next move is Couvillion’s, as the property owner must decide what project to propose. The city is legally obligated to initiate a project application put forth by property owners. Currently, a lawsuit filed by the Shelby family on the matter of the parcel’s agricultural designation is being stayed, pending further information.

However, it can be said that the next move may also be Glen Annie Golf Course’s, as a project proposal from the two properties is likely to hold more weight than a single proposal from the Shelby side. The financial partners of the golf course, which is in default but still operating, have yet to decide on its ownership.

While Couvillion sees that much of the decision is his, there is a certain hesitation to move forward without city backing. If there’s adequate interest in a proposed project, there may yet be hope for his retirement investment, diminished though it may be. Some ideas include a donation of a third of the remaining acreage — five acres to the city for green open space.

“I don’t know,” said Couvillion. “I feel like I’ve done all I could.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at sfernandez@noozhawk.com.