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The third phase of the Willow Springs housing development in Goleta is planned for the empty land north of the finished units, shown here, at 60 Willow Springs Lane near Los Carneros Road.  (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

The third phase of the Willow Springs housing development ran into an obstacle this week as the Goleta City Council questioned vacating the roadway right-of-way that The Towbes Group relies on for the current design of the 350-plus-unit project.

The site for Heritage Ridge, a proposed development with senior and workforce rental housing, is located just north of the completed Willow Springs apartments, east of Los Carneros Road between Hollister Avenue and Highway 101.

As part of its project application, The Towbes Group requested the city vacate part of the Los Carneros Road right-of-way, in the space between the roadway and the developer’s property line.

According to emails and other correspondence noted by a Towbes Group attorney, past city staff members were well aware of the request and seemed to think it would go through, but it’s still unresolved as the project moves forward.

Easement issues are usually handled by staff during development approval process, but two council members asked that the issue be brought before the full council for discussion, Public Works Director Charlie Ebeling said in a staff report.  

Tuesday’s meeting was to discuss the roadway right-of-way and the potential future uses for the city, not a forum to talk about the proposed project or its merits, Deputy City Attorney Winnie Cai noted.

Council members discussed their options of relinquishing the right-of-way the developer requested, not relinquishing it, or relinquishing a portion of it, in a compromise proposal reached by Ebeling and the developer’s civil engineer, Dale Weber of MAC Design Associates.  

The compromise idea would have the city vacate a portion of the Los Carneros Road right-of-way and have the developer grant a 5-foot easement on the northern end of the property near Highway 101 – that would create a contiguous 10-foot “buffer” between the roadway and Heritage Ridge property line, according to the city.

The city’s concern with vacating a portion of the right-of-way easement is that the city may need the land for future public use, including roadway projects like adding turn lanes, Ebeling said.

Though the city doesn’t have any projects on the books that likely would need more space than the compromise allows, it is still a small risk for the future, he said.

On Tuesday, the City Council voted to pay for an engineering design study to look at future right-of-way needs for Los Carneros Road, and pursue the third, compromise option of vacating a portion of the roadway right-of-way.

Six Towbes Group representatives attended Tuesday’s meeting, and company president Craig Zimmerman said he was surprised to be at the council discussing this issue, since it is not a new one.

The developer worked with city officials to set up project boundaries and design, and turned in a completed application to the city in 2014, he said.

The issue of vacating the right-of-way came up again earlier this year as the project was preparing for Planning Commission review, he said.

“This 180 by the city on a critical part of the project was concerning,” he said.

He and Weber argued that there is plenty of room to add turn lanes to Los Carneros Road in the future, with the buffer zone space, if the city decides to do so.

Ebeling said city staff were also caught by surprise earlier this year that the right-of-way issue was not resolved, and that clearly there was not adequate communication internally between city departments and externally with the developer in the past.

“We’re here because there was some breakdown in communication,” he said.

Mayor Paula Perotte said it is the city’s responsibility to study the decision to vacate the right-of-way, and not take a chance on it. 

“I’m really sorry that all this time you had the impression this was approved,” she said. 

The council also directed staff to move the project forward to Planning Commission review, since that is the next step in its development approval process.

However, Planning and Environmental Review Director Peter Imhof said the commission should not give its recommendations to the council until the right-of-way issue is resolved.

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.