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Goleta Council OKs Contact with Environmental Consultants for Bishop Ranch Plan

City staff had requested help reviewing documents for the proposed development project

The Goleta City Council narrowly voted Tuesday evening to contract with environmental consultants ICF International, also known as Jones & Stokes Associates, for a supplemental review of an application to develop the South Coast’s biggest tract of undeveloped land.

The 3-2 vote — with Councilwoman Margaret Connell and Councilman Roger Aceves dissenting — means that at the $85,000 expense of the developer, the application to build on the 240-acre swath of land known as the Bishop Ranch will undergo further review.

Planning and Environmental Services Director Steve Chase said the application submitted by Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC in April had “a lot of holes,” and given the magnitude of development proposed by the company, there were questions that needed answers even before the city staff could have a meaningful discussion with the council on the project.

Bishop Ranch is a scenic and historic piece of land that originally spanned a section of western Goleta from the foothills north of the Goleta Valley south to near the coast. But the land in question these days occupies the area north of Highway 101, east of the Glen Annie/Storke exit, west of Los Carneros Road and south of Cathedral Oaks Road.

Zoned residential by the county, it has been the subject of attempts to develop throughout the years, hampered by a water moratorium in the years before Goleta cityhood, and then a rezone to an agricultural designation by the city’s founders. In 2008, Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC proposed a project on the land and held a series of community meetings, but, citing negative reports by the city, withdrew its application.

According to Chase, the proposed development, about 1,100 units of various sizes in a mixed-use design, would constitute a neighborhood unto itself. And while that is not necessarily frowned upon, it begs further consideration given the sheer size of the development, the resources and municipal services it would use, the traffic it would bring, and its articulation with the rest of the city. Other considerations include a look into the actual need for the housing that it would build.

On top of all that, development on the ranch would necessitate a General Plan amendment to remove the agricultural designation of the land, and environmental review to study the impacts on the land’s riparian habitat.

After the analysis, Chase said, the results would give staff the information needed to recommend either the initiation or the denial of the project.

Connell, in particular, said she was uncomfortable with how close this study comes to an initiation of the project, one that she has steadfastly been vocal about in her opposition. As one of the founders of Goleta, she was one of the Planning Agency members that formulated the city’s first General Plan, which set the ranch aside as an agricultural resource.

“This is not an initiation, but this is not too far off,” she said, adding that the city did not necessarily need the additional housing or the traffic impacts of a new development.

Should staff recommend an actual initiation of the project, it not only would bring Bishop Ranch one step closer to being rezoned from agricultural to residential, it also would open the doors to other similarly zoned properties that wish to build houses on agricultural land.

The developer has agreed to do the further study at its expense, without the expectation that an initiation would follow. The study is expected to take six months.

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

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