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Ray Ford: Young America’s Foundation Challenges Legitimacy of Reagan Ranch Trail Plan

Santa Barbara-based group sues Santa Barbara County over proposed trail across private property it calls ‘significant cultural and historical resource’

Kalon Kelly enjoys a walk along the Gaviota portion of West Camino Cielo. Several ranches, including one once owned by the late President Ronald Reagan, block public access further along the crest. Click to view larger
Kalon Kelly enjoys a walk along the Gaviota portion of West Camino Cielo. Several ranches, including one once owned by the late President Ronald Reagan, block public access further along the crest. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The Young America’s Foundation has filed a lawsuit against Santa Barbara County relating to a proposed trail route crossing the Reagan Ranch property it owns west of Santa Barbara. The disputed route through the ranch is included on the County Parks and Recreation Trail Map contained within the recently approved Gaviota Coast Plan.

The property in question is Rancho del Cielo, once owned by the late President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy. The Reagans purchased the ranch in 1974 and it served as the Western White House during Reagan’s presidency from 1981 to 1989.

The Santa Barbara-based nonprofit Young America’s Foundation bought the ranch in 1998.

The suit, filed on Dec. 8, 2016, alleges that the environmental impact report approved by the Board of Supervisors a month earlier “wholly fails to appropriately analyze the impacts that may occur from placing a trail through a significant cultural and historical resource” such as the Reagan Ranch.

PRT Maps

The Parks and Recreation Trails (PRT) Map was first developed in 1980 as a part of the Recreation Element of the county’s General Plan. The focus of the Gaviota Coast Plan was to update elements such as Land Use, Recreation, Natural and Cultural Resources and Agriculture, among others — none of which had been updated since the original General Plan was created.

One of the tasks of the citizen’s committee (GavPac) appointed by then-Third District Supervisor Doreen Farr was to review the trail routes contained on the 1980 PRT Map. The focus of this review was to determine if adjustments needed to be made to any of the routes, if new routes should be added or others deleted.

While there were several adjustments made to trail routes on the PRT Map — primarily vertical routes leading from the coast to the top of the mountains — there was also strong agreement that the proposed route that follows the Santa Ynez Mountain crest from Gaviota Hot Springs to Refugio Road be retained in its current location along West Camino Cielo.

The West Camino Cielo trail route referenced by the Young America’s Foundation lawsuit dates back to the original General Plan, well before the foundation purchased the ranch.

Click here for the original 1980 PRT Map.

Corridors vs. Specific Lines

Along with the potential cultural and historical impacts to the Reagan Ranch, the lawsuit also charges that by placing the trail line along a specific route (Camino Cielo) rather than designating a corridor in which a future specific placement could be determined, it effectively eliminated other possible routes other than the crest route.

In a letter sent to the county on Nov. 4, 2016, in response to the draft EIR for the Coastal Plan, the Young America’s Foundation argued that a better solution for the county would be to designate a mile-wide corridor rather than a specific line.

The island view from the Santa Ynez Mountain crest a half-mile from a locked gate marking the west boundary of Rancho Dos Vistas. Click to view larger
The island view from the Santa Ynez Mountain crest a half-mile from a locked gate marking the west boundary of Rancho Dos Vistas. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

The letter states that such a corridor might allow the county “to locate property owners who want trails in exchange for those benefits the county has to offer as contemplated by the plan” and for the agencies and other community groups the opportunity “to consider the potential for alternative trail alignments for the West Camino Cielo crest trail west of Refugio Road, including existing trail easements as an alternative alignment.”

Feasibility & Purpose

The county’s Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC) position is that the most suitable route for the trail is along the crest of the Santa Ynez Mountains because it follows the historic route created more than a hundred years ago. Dubbed the Ocean View Trail, it once stretched from Gaviota to the Ventura River just north of Ojai, a distance of more than 50 miles.

Further, CRAHTAC argues that the most practical route is also along the existing roadway because the Camino Cielo jeep and paved roads are already in place and it impacts only two properties, Rancho del Cielo and Rancho Dos Vistas.

CRAHTAC also notes that siting the trail on the south side of the crest would necessitate the trail being routed through many more properties. Most of these are much smaller in size and much less amenable to locating a suitable route that could go through all of them.

Although not responding formally due to the lawsuit, county officials acknowledge the best route is along the crest for the same reasons described above.

One long-time county employee, who did not wish to be identified, told me, “The Young America’s group knew the line was on the PRT Map when they bought the property and are using the Gaviota Planning process to see if they can get it removed.”

If the lawsuit is successful, this could not only complicate efforts to create a connecting trail through to Refugio Road, but might be used by other parcel owners in an effort to remove PRT lines from their properties.

Current Access

While private holdings such as the Reagan Ranch and Rancho Dos Vistas prevent through access to Refugio Road, the first 8½ miles of the jeepway from the Gaviota Hot Springs trailhead to the locked gate marking the Rancho Dos Vistas boundary is open to hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers.

An enlarged view of the 1980 Santa Barbara County Parks and Recreation Trails Map. The PRT line being challenged by the Young America’s Foundation is noted in orange, along with the approximate location of the Reagan Ranch west of Santa Barbara. Click to view larger
An enlarged view of the 1980 Santa Barbara County Parks and Recreation Trails Map. The PRT line being challenged by the Young America’s Foundation is noted in orange, along with the approximate location of the Reagan Ranch west of Santa Barbara. (Santa Barbara County illustration)

Given the difficulty of the 17-mile out-and-back effort required to get this far, public use is fairly limited. However, this could change in the near future.

Construction of a ridge trail from lower Baron Ranch near the Tajiguas Landfill to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains is currently in progress. When opened, the trail will top out less than a half-mile from Rancho Dos Vistas.

The trail will not only provide through access from Baron Ranch west to the Gaviota Hot Springs but could put added pressure on providing access east to Refugio Road.

Legal Disposition

Currently, county employees in departments affected by the lawsuit have been directed to Santa Barbara County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni, who estimates it will take several months to review the suit and develop the county’s response. He expects it will be at least a year before the case is settled.

[Noozhawk’s note: The author is a member of Santa Barbara County’s Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC). The information relating to the committee’s position regarding the West Camino Cielo PRT route portray his own summary of the group’s point of view and communications from other members who did not want to be quoted publicly.]

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.

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