If Goleta’s General Plan is an expression of the young city’s image of itself, then no doubt Goleta’s self image is changing, and rapidly. Ever since the city’s incorporation in 2002 the city’s master planning document has been at the center of a tug of war between those who would preserve the semi-rural small town feel of the new city and those who push for more growth and urbanization.

Anyone who’s had any interest in the evolution of the city of Goleta will know that above anything, planning is the main issue. In fact, it can be said that the city’s inception was itself one big planning issue – a decision by locals to take control over its development from a county government that seemed too remote and too heavy handed with its development decisions to be aware of the population and culture that already existed in the Goleta Valley.

Historically a farming town, with acres of orchards, fields and pastures, Goleta had little use for large-scale development until World War II, which brought to the valley military operations and what would eventually become the Santa Barbara Airport and UCSB.

Shortly thereafter, a population that was kept low because of lack of adequate water supply began to increase, as the Cachuma Project of the late 1950s brought more water to the valley. Development in the 1960s onward saw tract homes, neighborhoods, schools and businesses spring up all over the valley as the economy shifted from primarily agricultural to business and industry.

In the 1970s and 80s a moratorium on new water hookups slowed development somewhat for what was becoming known as one of the fastest-developing unincorporated areas in the state. But in the drought-ridden early 1990s, participation in the State Water Project opened the gates to even more development.

“The issue was one of local control over growth issues and how Goleta’s money was spent,” said Goleta Council Member Jonny Wallis, a resident of Old Town Goleta, which by the turn of the century had a development plan in its revitalization plan with the County. According to Wallis, the excitement of incorporation was in letting other Goletans have a say in the growth of their community.

Across town, in the Santa Barbara Shores neighborhood at the western end of Goleta, Cynthia Brock was just getting her community activist feet wet with Ellwood Mesa, then a parcel of land awaiting development.

“It became clear that one of the biggest issues about governance on the South Coast was what was going to happen to Goleta,” she said. “Was it going to be annexed, was it going to stay with the county, was it going to become a city?” With the hookup to state water, and the subsequent development, the sentiment among many community members was that the county provided inadequate oversight over the projects that were landing on the ground in unincorporated Goleta, she said.

“It was easy for people to say ‘Oh just put it out there in Goleta, they have lots of open space.’”

Through a series of meetings and workshops intended to plan for the future of the Goleta Valley, with community groups like Common Ground, the Goleta Roundtable and ultimately GoletaNow!,  Goletans like Wallis, Brock and Jack Hawxhurst from Goleta’s suburban Patterson neighborhood, and Margaret Connell, formerly active in the Santa Barbara School Board, pushed for incorporation, a measure that had been attempted more than once before, only to fail at the polls.

In 2001 however, voters approved Goleta’s incorporation, but not without several attempts at drawing and re-drawing municipal borders. Ultimately, the suburban neighborhoods east of Patterson Ave., known colloquially as “Noleta” were left out of the new city.

The Isla Vista community, already known for its hard-drinking, hard-partying student population was also left out of the mix, to the dismay of many local residents, while the inclusion of IV was also seen as an obstacle to cityhood.

Bishop Ranch, the 240-acre plot of agricultural land which was surrounded by development, however, was included in the city’s official map, but Glen Annie Golf Course, in the northwest outskirts of the city’s boundaries, was left to the county.

Whose plan is it?

New cities are expected to have a general plan in place within about a year of their incorporation. But if you’re Goleta, with a brand new city council that is also acting as planning agency, you’ll take a few years longer.

The city’s General Plan had its fair share of hiccups along the way. Getting a municipal government out of what was initially a series of meetings around a kitchen table was time consuming enough. Working under a rather onerous revenue neutrality agreement with the county meant that funds had to be spent slower.  Departures by top city officials slowed progress.

But that was the easy part. In council and planning agency meetings, in workshops and board meetings, different segments of the community hashed out what the policies would be for the document that would become the city’s vision for itself. It’s that vision that continues to be debated today.

“There were two futures we were looking at,” said Kristen Amyx, president and CEO of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, which has been a vocal and influential pro-business and development force in the shaping of the city.

“One was that we would become something like a seaside resort town with a mostly retirement population, or that we could retain the suburban feel in an urban area with the retention of a middle class.” Lack of business opportunities would drive away the younger population, who couldn’t find jobs or buy a house, she said.

Residents like Barbara Massey, on the other hand, fear that too much urbanization would destroy the small town feel of Goleta.

“What we were hoping for was that Goleta would keep its small town character, with its small businesses, no big tall buildings taking over neighborhoods with inappropriate design We’d retain our agricultural land and open space.”

Massey, who has been involved in land use and planning since 1965 in Half Moon Bay, moved to Goleta in the mid 1990s, and has been active on the Goleta Design Review Board and was appointed to the city’s first planning commission, but she never got to take her post. She doesn’t think that growth is necessary to have a vital community.

“We’re already getting too close into overdevelopment,” she said. “Let’s not wreck what we have just so we can say we’re growing.”

Between the two poles are commuters who want a home here, residents who are growing more frustrated with traffic, young people trying to find a job, environmentalists trying to save what natural resources Goleta has, old-timers who remember the good old ag days, homeowners who want to expand their homes, local businesses that need good infrastructure. The list goes on.

The General Plan’s adoption in late 2006 was the last major effort the city’s founders put together, a feat praised by local environmental groups and slow-growthers who wanted to see little change from the Goleta they loved. It was a plan that promised rigid building standards and strict controls over development. For many who had witnessed the debates and gone to the meetings and workshops for years, it was a relief to finally have a finished document.

But the respite would be short. Tensions had been building between the business and development community and the city council/planning agency for years since incorporation. Development projects that were greenlighted under the county were stalled during the General Plan effort. Projects like the Bishop Ranch and Residences at Sandpiper in western Goleta found no support in the Goleta City Council, and the Chamber of Commerce had but one friendly ear in Council Member Jean Blois. The city was fighting several lawsuits from developers, private homeowners and business interests.

Shortly after the adoption of the General Plan, three spots opened up on the City Council, as incumbents Cynthia Brock, Jack Hawxhurst and Margaret Connell were swept off their posts and replaced by Michael Bennett, Eric Onnen and Roger Aceves.

With the replacement of three members, the council became a more business and development-friendly one. Onnen and Bennett were strongly supported by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce and campaign contributions from developers and landowners, including Michael Towbes, Michael Keston of the Bishop Ranch and the Shelby Family, a point not lost on slow-growth Goletans who saw their candidates’ campaigns outspent by an almost 4 to 1 margin.

“I campaigned on the idea that the General Plan was a good plan, but it needed to be revised because there wasn’t anything that was going to get built because of the way the plan was put together,” said Bennett, who is currently the mayor of Goleta. According to him, the campaign contributions the business-friendly council members got from development interests was in reaction to the former council’s refusal to listen to the builders on issues of housing and property values that were going unrealized because of the policies of the original General Plan.

“Why would they support someone who wouldn’t even talk to them?” he said. “We said we would listen to everybody, that’s fair.

And (the developers) don’t vote. They aren’t the people who elected me to office.”

Aceves, for his part, also received developer money but his politics are decidedly more slow-growth, often aligned with those of the lone slow growth council member, Jonny Wallis’.

Now what?

To hear Goleta’s Planning and Environmental Services Director Steve Chase say it, the General Plan is a “living, breathing document.”

“The General Plan process does not end with its adoption,” he said. “Adoption is, in many ways, only the beginning,” he said.

Still, supporters of the original document were probably not expecting the almost 200 amendments proposed for the General Plan. The document can only be amended three times a year, and 2008 was already booked before it began. People who supported the original plan voiced their frustrations to the city in numerous meetings, while it was the Chamber of Commerce’s turn to commend the council on their actions.

Many of the amendments were suggested by Bacara Resort & Spa, a luxury destination on the western fringes of the city that has not had the best of relationships with locals mostly because of access issues to Haskell’s Beach, the only public beach within the city. The resort intends to build hotel condos on its property, using the amendment process to pave some of the way. Other amendments were proposed by other business and development interests in an effort to overcome limitations put upon their projects by the General Plan. City planners also had a hand in the revisions, making changes to policies in an attempt to make things consistent, or to change policies that did not work on the ground.

One of the biggest battles over the plan has been over an increased inclusionary housing rate for residential developments within the Hollister corridor – a policy that would subsidize a certain amount of housing aimed at low to upper moderate-income families at the cost of increased market-rate homes in the same development.

As well-intentioned as the original plan was to concentrate 55 percent of affordable housing where it could be reached by public transportation, and at the same time satisfy a regional affordable housing quota, the would-be providers of the housing rejected the idea as infeasible and therefore a barrier to affordable housing.

It’s a longstanding debate which was settled in a way by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which has denied the General Plan’s Housing Element certification, for among other things, lack of evidence that the 55 percent policy would work.

“We’re reaching the end of our growth cycle,” said Chase, who joined the city in 2006 after a career spent in the planning departments of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “Now we have to decide how best to use our remaining land.”

Up until recently Chase’s mantra during city meetings had been that there was no growth proposed to the city outside of what was already outlined in the General Plan land use map.  But things looked like they could be taking a different direction a several weeks ago when despite staff recommendation, the council voted 3-2 to look into the Shelby Trust’s request for amendments that could result in a rezone of the agricultural Shelby property to residential.  If approved, those amendments could pave the way for a rezone of Bishop Ranch, a sprawling agriculturally zoned property that has for years been at the center of a plan that includes about a thousand new homes in west Goleta.

Though the pendulum seems to have swung strongly in favor of a more business and development friendly Goleta, there are still factors to consider even as the young city struggles for equilibrium.

UCSB, for one, is engaging in a Long Range Development Plan that will increase its population by at least 5,000, prompting concerns over traffic and municipal services.

“UCSB assumes away certain issues,” said Chase. The university’s assumption that its proposed housing and alternative transportation will keep people off the already crowded local streets remains to be proven, he said. The city intends to comment on UCSB’s plans at the end of this month.

Other development plans – Isla Vista’s Community Plan, Eastern Goleta Valley’s emerging community plan update – will also impact the future of Goleta’s growth, as will the Goleta Water District’s change in its water reallocation process for new developments. Goleta’s support for a transfer of development rights for properties in the as yet undeveloped Naples area west of the city might have some effect as well.

Just a week ago, the increased inclusionary rate for Hollister Corridor residential development that was shot down by both the city’s staff and Planning Commission came back to life as the council voted 3-2 to submit a 30 percent inclusionary rate to HCD as part of its revised Housing Element. It’s a decision that has Chase “concerned” about HCD approval of the Housing Element.

Politically speaking, upcoming city elections for two seats, currently belonging to Council members Jean Blois and Jonny Wallis may see a shift in the council majority.  Blois has already announced her candidacy, while Wallis chooses to remain quiet on her decision for the time being.

If there’s one thing that’s been constant in the Good Land, it’s that change is just around the corner.