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Goleta Water District Annexation of Gaviota Property Tossed Out

Judge sides with environmental group over use of 10-year-old impact report prepared for golf course proposal

The Goleta Water District’s annexation of 130 acres of Gaviota coast property was invalidated Tuesday by a judge who ruled in favor of a lawsuit challenging the shift as an unfair annexation.

Known locally as “the Makar property,” the 130 acres in question are part of a larger, 208-acre property that was once slated to be the Dos Pueblos Golf Links, which was approved by Santa Barbara County in 1998. A portion of the Makar-owned property is part of the antiquated Naples townsite.

The golf course is no longer part of the plan, which currently calls for two luxury residences and related structures. To proceed with the development, however, the property had to be annexed to the Goleta Water District for service, a transfer that was approved by the Santa Barbara Local Agency Formation Commission last year.

Citing the annexation plan’s reliance on 10-year-old environmental impact documents for the golf course, the Gaviota Coast Conservancy filed a lawsuit for what it deemed was an unfair annexation, naming as defendants the water district, LAFCO and Makar Properties. On Tuesday, Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle sided with the environmental group.

“This case has a long and convoluted history,” said conservancy attorney Marc Chytilo.

Although the property had its approvals to become a golf course in 1998, the merger of the 25 Makar-owned Naples lots was deemed necessary to complete the annexation of the property for the golf course. Official annexation of the property is typically required within one year of approval.

Several years, a $4.5 million payment from the Orange County-based developer to the water district, a can-and-will serve letter from the agency, and a couple of time extensions later, the application to annex was still not officially complete and was allowed to lapse. The state Coastal Commission eventually rejected the golf course plan in 2003, when threatened red-legged frogs were found at the site. The developer returned with a new plan for the luxury homes and a possibility of 10 other homes on the 25 Naples lots, as the golf course plan had become the subject of litigation with the conservancy. The district’s obligation to provide water remained the same, however, and LAFCO recorded the annexation last year.

“Had the annexation been officially completed, as required by the Cortese-Knox Act in effect at that time (1998), the change in the nature of the proposed project in the intervening years would have been irrelevant,” Anderle said in his ruling. The Cortese-Knox Act at the time gave the water district authority over the annexation. The statute was amended in 2000 to require LAFCO to be the “conducting authority” over annexations.

“However, because the 1998 annexation was not officially completed until 2008, there exist considerable questions, raised in this action, as to the propriety of completing the annexation 10 years after it was approved,” Anderle’s ruling said.

According to the court’s analysis, LAFCO refused to grant another waiver of time to Makar after Sept. 2, 2003, at least in part because the planned merger of the Naples lots was tied up in ongoing litigation between the developer and the Coastal Commission. Thus LAFCO, the court said, had no authority to complete the annexation in 2008 as it allowed the 1998 annexation application to expire.

Meanwhile, the Goleta Water District, Makar and LAFCO contend LAFCO acted within its authority when it approved the 1998 annexation request, and that its recordation last year was merely a ministerial action.

“I recorded it last year,” LAFCO executive officer Bob Braitman said. “And now Judge Anderle wants me to un-record it.”

There is also disagreement as to whether a merger of Naples lots was actually one of the final conditions of annexation.

Anderle’s ruling comes after a series of lawsuits between the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and the Coastal Commission, Makar and the Goleta Water District. In March of last year, the conservancy sued the district, claiming it had failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act requirement for an adequate environmental impact analysis before the district made a new application for annexation based on the residential project plans. The case was dismissed after the defendants withdrew last summer.

When the water district and the landowners applied again last year to complete the 1998 annexation based on the golf course EIR, the conservancy sued again, leading to this current decision.

Still up in the air are several issues, including the $4.5 million that Makar paid the district for infrastructure relative to the golf course plans and the expansion of the district’s reclaimed water operations. Chip Wulbrandt, the Goleta Water District’s special counsel on the Makar issue, could not be reached for comment. The district’s general counsel, Fran Farina, said the agency will hold a closed-session meeting on its next step on May. 12.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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