The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has delayed a decision on the Caltrans Gaviota Culvert project after an appeal hearing, and will likely deny the project at another meeting later this month. 

In May, the county Planning Commission approved Caltrans’ plan to build a new culvert near Canada del Barro off the Gaviota Coast due to degradation of the existing culvert in the area. 

The Gaviota Coast Conservancy and the Coastal Ranches Conservancy appealed the project, alleging it has not been designed to accommodate fish and wildlife in the area and does not properly mitigate the adverse impacts.

The Board of Supervisors last week ultimately voted 4-1, with Chair Gregg Hart opposed, to continue the item until Sept. 22, when it will consider upholding the appeal and denying the project approval. 

Caltrans planning staff said impacts to biological resources were found to be less than significant for the project. 

“I appreciate the concerns for the environment,” said Mitch Dallas, senior coastal resources specialist arguing for the project. “If there was a wildlife crossing issue here, I’d be the first to bring it up.”

Doug Kern, executive director of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, argued in the appeal that the drainage path of the new culvert would flow into the highway and wildlife would presumably follow those drainages, causing more animal-vehicle collisions. 

Kern said that Caltrans incorrectly stated that there are no wildlife corridors to consider, and it has not accommodated wildlife crossing in its project. The project proposes habitat restoration around the area that could attract even more wildlife to the area, he added.

Doug Campbell, executive director of the Coastal Ranches Conservancy, said Caltrans is required to accommodate a fish and wildlife passage when they build a culvert, and that this project has not done so.

“The new culvert is literally a wall of death, it’s extreme peril,” Campbell said. The new culvert would divide animals from potential mates and food sources and creates a “very serious problem of genetic isolation,” he said. 

Ana Citrin, an environmental law attorney representing the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, said that the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as the Caltrans wildlife crossing manual, require projects to consider the indirect impacts. She also said adverse impacts of this project have not been mitigated as much as they could be.  

Both appealing parties argued that Caltrans was unable to make the required findings of consistency with the Gaviota Coast Plan that was adopted in November 2018, which is intended to preserve the rural character of Gaviota.

Caltrans planning staff disagreed and said that the project is consistent with the GCP and Coastal Land Use Plan, since it is not visible from Highway 101 and will not impact existing or future recreational opportunities. They argued that the new culvert is “necessary to protect Highway 101.”

The existing culvert is “in a state of disrepair” and the new culvert is designed to maintain the highway, said Dallas.

After hearing both sides last week, Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said she could not make the finding that the cumulative impacts of the project have been taken into account, and wanted to upheld the appeal “on a matter of principle.”

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he thought the appeal had very little substance, but voted to bring back findings for upholding the appeal and denying the project. 

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Jade Martinez-Pogue

Jade Martinez-Pogue, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Jade Martinez-Pogue can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.