You might not know about Bishop Ranch but if you have any reason to visit western Goleta — be it to go to Dos Pueblos High, Ellwood Mesa or Camino Real Marketplace — you’ve seen it. It’s that wide expanse of rolling terrain punctuated by trees and a small white house on your right as you exit northbound Highway 101 on Storke/Glen Annie Road.
It’s also in the middle of a big drive for development by Encino-based developer Michael Keston, a move cheered by housing advocates and the business community worried about retaining their commuting workers and decried by conservationists and slow-growth proponents who worry about its bird and butterfly habitats and the potential for increased traffic snarls on local streets.
Under the leadership of J. Michael Nolte, a one-time area resident and general manager for Bishop Ranch 2000 LLC, Keston’s Vision For Bishop Ranch has been gathering local input from the community on the possible future of the 240-acre property. Four sessions have been held so far, with attendance each time at around 100 people.
“The purpose of the eight meetings is to cover every aspect of the Bishop Ranch in the sense that if Bishop Ranch is developed you need to have all of this information,” said Nolte. “If we have this information then maybe we can come to a consensus on what ought to be here.”
To that end, the project’s working group has been engaged in several meetings designed to “shape the future of Goleta” by suggesting the kind of development that might best satisfy the developer, housing proponents, and maybe even those who object to any building on the property at all.
And shape the future of Goleta it will — with projected numbers that range from 900 to around 1,200 homes, the Bishop Ranch project will be the largest housing development in Goleta since the city’s incorporation in 2002. It would be a comparable number of homes to all the current major housing projects in the area combined: Sumida Gardens, The Village at Los Carneros, UCSB’s current plans for its North and West campuses, and Comstock Homes in Ellwood.
It’s statistics like those that make people like local resident and conservationist Steve Ferry cringe. He’s been to the meetings and as far as he’s concerned, Nolte and company will have to do more to convince him that the project would do more good than harm.
“Personally, I’d like to see the land remain undeveloped or in agriculture,” he said. At the group’s fourth session on Nov. 8, Ferry commented that the results of the traffic analysis “did not pass the ‘smell’ test.”
“Full build-out of Bishop Ranch would result in about 2,000 rush-hour trips each way per day,” Ferry wrote in his comment. “This will have a major effect on the freeway and our already congested surface streets. The community needs to ensure that these impacts are mitigated 100 percent.”
Meanwhile, housing advocates have been turning out as well to support the project, saying that workers from afar as well as next-generation Goletans will not be able to afford a home in the area unless more housing is built, a sentiment with which Nolte agrees.
“I think the real tragedy is that we have people who provide services to those who live in this community that have to travel 65 miles out and 65 miles back because they can’t afford to live here.” he said. Using a 20 percent inclusionary rate as a guideline, the project could provide at least 180 affordable units.
This isn’t the first time people have wrangled over what to do with the land. In the 1860s, the land including what is now known as Bishop Ranch and adjacent properties to the south belonged to Goleta pioneer W.W. Hollister, for whom Goleta’s main thoroughfare is named. An ongoing feud between Hollister’s wife, Annie James, and his sister, known as “Auntie Brown,” led to the construction of a second mansion on the lower ranch called “Corona del Mar,” on the site where the small white ranch house currently stands.
Only a few years later, the previous owners of the Hollister land, the Den family, filed a suit against Hollister claiming his purchase was illegal. Hollister died in 1886 while the case was still in court. His will left his Goleta properties to his sons and wife, but nothing to his sister, which prompted another lawsuit against the Hollister estate, this time by Auntie Brown, who won.
In 1890, Hollister’s widow learned that the state Supreme Court had sided with the Den family, ruling on a technicality that the Hollister purchases were indeed illegal. Corona del Mar, however, never went back to the Den family; it was taken by the Dens’ lawyer, Thomas B. Bishop, as payment for his services. As Annie Hollister left her home for the last time, her house caught fire and quickly burned to the ground. People had their suspicions, but no one was ever able to prove she did it.
These days, the debates over Bishop Ranch have to do with topics like zoning, densities, traffic and roads, the environment, green building standards and solid waste, to name a few. For his part, Nolte hopes to debunk some notions that opponents of the project have traditionally used, like the idea that it has always been intended for agriculture (it has in the past been zoned for commercial and residential uses). Or the idea that Keston’s group won’t have water rights because the owners of the land, University Exchange Corp., sold all water rights to the property, leaving the property with no water.
“We have water rights,” he said. The property would be eligible for water from the Goleta Water District given its SAFE ordinance, which would allow 1 percent of total potable water supply for every year the local supply is able to meet certain conditions.
The actual development of the property would still be years away, although the owner might find a friendlier reception in local government than he has in the past. Last November, Goleta voters replaced three incumbent council members with more business-friendly candidates — a slate that received support from Keston.
“Keston made campaign contributions to the candidates, along with four members of his family,” said Ferry, who called the practice “egregious.” The legal contributions were made in the final two weeks before the election and below the $1,000 threshhold that would require reporting at that time.
Marie McQueen, a representative of Bishop Ranch 2000, took exception to the implication that the Keston family was somehow being sneaky with its campaign contributions.
Keston’s intent wasn’t specificially that if he contributed to the campaigns of the new council members, they would automatically agree to develop Bishop Ranch, said McQueen. “The (idea) was that we had an old council that wouldn’t listen to the voices of the business community,” she said.
For the moment at least, the action on Bishop Ranch is mostly conceptual, with the ongoing working group sessions that will likely lead to more debate. The next meeting promises to be an interesting one: it deals with parks and open space, a subject near and dear to the hearts of birdwatchers and butterfly lovers, as well as to those of soccer moms and other supporters of active recreation in the community. It will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Nov. 29 at Dos Pueblos High, 7266 Alameda Ave.