When we drive Highway 101 between Goleta and the Gaviota Tunnel, it is often easy for us to take the beautiful stretch of coastline for granted. This special place has not been preserved in its rural state by accident, however, and it will not remain so without the collective efforts of the Santa Barbara County community.

Commonly referred to as the Gaviota coast, the region consists of mostly privately held, agriculturally zoned land, but also includes three state parks, national forest, and oil and gas facilities. The increasingly difficult challenge is how to preserve open space and maintain agriculture despite Southern California’s ever-growing population pressures. I believe the county government should play a leadership role in directly addressing this challenge by working with all stakeholders to ensure that Gaviota is protected.

Over the years much has been invested in preserving the Gaviota coast’s rural character. Generations of landowners are to be commended for their stewardship of the region through their agricultural operations that have maintained the open space we enjoy today. As economic and population pressures have increased, more tools have become available to landowners through the use of conservation and agricultural easements and the assistance provided by nonprofit land trusts. Parcels of land, such as Arroyo Hondo Ranch, have been purchased for conservation and recreation purposes. In 2004, the National Park Service completed a study that found Gaviota to be a national significant region in need of further protection, but also found that this was best done through measures implemented by local government and private entities.

That challenge from the NPS put the responsibility squarely on Santa Barbara County government. The most immediate issue is Naples. Located a few miles north of Goleta, Naples has the potential for more intensive development than the rest of the coast because of the existence of a subdivision recorded there in the late 1800s. The county is currently processing a developer’s application to build 54 homes on the property as a result of an MOU signed after the county lost a state Supreme Court ruling.

As part of the planning process for the Naples application, a Transfer of Development Rights, or TDR, study was required.  The concept involves the transfer of development rights from a property identified for conservation to another parcel more appropriately suited for development.  If established, a TDR program could allow a reduction in the number of homes developed at Naples in exchange for some limited increases in density to the urban portion of the South Coast.

Over the past year, the county has partnered with the city of Santa Barbara, the Naples developer and environmental groups to examine the concept of TDR.  I am happy to report that on Feb. 5, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to finalize the proposed TDR ordinance.  While this is a positive development, there is still much work to be done in implementing a TDR ordinance and successfully applying it to Naples and other Gaviota properties.

TDR is not a panacea, however.  It is only one additional tool that can be used by our community to preserve Gaviota.  It is important that we also continue to work to identify and implement other options for preserving agriculture and open space on the coast.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to hold a hearing dedicated exclusively to a discussion of approaches to preserving the Gaviota coast.  I am hopeful that my colleagues will join me in rising to the challenge before us and articulating a comprehensive vision to maintain the beauty and natural resources of this unique place.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal is chairman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.