The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission recently hosted a second workshop with County Parks and County Planning and Development regarding what are known as “public benefit projects.”
This workshop was designed to provide community input on the concept. If implemented this could mark a major turning point in the future of recreation and how we manage it in Santa Barbara County.
On one side were those supportive of public access to more trails, more parks and more sports fields, much of this constructed on private lands.
On the other, ranchers, large scale property owners and vintners who to this point have been opposed to any type of public access.
A New Approach to Providing Public Access
The concept is a pretty simple one: adjust the general plan and zoning ordinances to prioritize recreation more, add several new ordinances and in some cases make changes to Community Plans to provide benefits to people willing to provide public access to their properties in return.
That might include a local winery that would love to develop an RV park, a restaurant or a B&B; a ranch owner who’d like to add something similar in return for adding a bike park or trail; or an owner who’d like to reduce zoning requirements to allow for more density on one part of the property in return for open space access in another part.
It’s a revolutionary concept — at least in Santa Barbara County, which has a rich history of north-south antagonism and distrust in the ranching community toward those who want to expand access to the public.
A Lovefest Beaks Out
Amazingly, those who lined up to share their comments from both sides turned out to be enthusiastically supportive, especially those with an economic stake in the outcome; the sudden conversion to the cause as much as the recognition that times were changing.
Grazing the land economically is becoming a more difficult proposition. Given this, some worry that local families who can trace ownership of their ranches in Santa Barbara County back several generations might consider selling them without the type of relief this program offers.
Growth in numbers of the wineries and vineyards on the other hand has brought a new type of tourism to areas like the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys. Recreational tourism is now surging in popularity. Others in the valleys are beginning to recognize its potential value.
The catch to date: county zoning ordinances, community plans and other county policies designed for an agrarian-based economy weren’t compatible with an increased interest in recreation.
But the policies that promised less bureaucratic tape, new profitable uses on their properties, a reduction of fees — who couldn’t fall in love with that?
A Major Turning Point?
Though no final decisions were made at the Sept. 27 meeting, overwhelming support for adoption of public benefit projects cleared a major hurdle. Look for final discussion by the Board of Supervisors on this and other recreation focused policies as early as this spring.
Though having not receiving much attention, the changes being discussed have the potential to radically change in how we manage recreation in Santa Barbara County.
Simply put, the concept is one most likely will mark a major turning point in the future of recreation in the county and possibly how we manage it. An added bonus is the changing relationships between private landowners and the public as well as the County.
As it turned out those who lined up to speak were mostly from those giving praise to the county for this new approach.
Presqu’ile Winery described a willingness to offer trail access through the vineyard to La Flores Ranch; owners along the Santa Ynez River expressed a willingness to offer land for sports park or a trail connection from Los Olivos to Buellton; Vega Winery offered potential trail access for improvements along Santa Rosa Road; Sunstone Winery chipped in with an offer for access to the river in another location.
Critical Need for Urban Recreation
Perhaps what might be even more important is how the offer of public benefits — including less restrictive development requirements, reduction or elimination of recreational fees or changes to height requirements — could lead to the creation of new parks, trails or sports facilities in the Goleta and Carpinteria valleys.
It could benefit urban recreation in areas like the Goleta or Carpinteria valleys where the state is mandating thousands of new housing units. Less restrictive development requirements, reduction or elimination of recreational fees or changes to height requirements could lead to new parks, sports complexes or trails in these areas.
Coming Changes to County Ordinances
Look for Santa Barbara County to adopt the two ordinances currently going through public review first: the Agricultural Enterprise Ordinance, which will allow for recreational uses on AG-zoned lands; the Farmstay Ordinance, which will allow farms of 40 or more acres to offer overnight visits under a less stringent set of rules.
Also look for the Board of Supervisors to begin discussion of how to implement the concept of public benefits into these and other aspects of the development process to begin in spring 2024.
Unfortunately There’s Never a Free Lunch
While it is easy to get excited about all these new possibilities discussed at the second workshop, there is cause for concern.
“All this will take money,” County Planning Commissioner Vincent Martinez noted at the first workshop. “Where’s that money coming from?
“Is that being considered at any step along the way? “ he added. “It’s not just about building something; it’s actually about being able to maintain it.
“That’s why public agencies don’t accept open land anymore.”
“You hit the nail on the head,” Chairman John Parke responded, “There is a price to pay for more recreation.
“The Board of Supervisors will have a decision to make when the Recreation Master Plan is adopted.”
The fundamental question: will the Board show a willingness to to support the County Parks Division in the manner that’s necessary to achieve everything that’s laid out in the master plan?
That will be expensive. How the Board deals with the issue of funding will be problem #1 will determine in good part whether the public benefits program will be workable.
Major Reorganization of Parks Needed?
Is the County Parks Division capable of managing the program? As noted by Commissioner Martinez, access for a park or a trail or a sports field is just the first part of the process. Then there’s the maintenance that goes with it over time, the personnel, equipment and training required in an already overburdened division.
As currently organized, Parks is not designed to manage more rural or less accessible resources including trailheads, trails, annual maintenance. A recent Noozhawk article titled “Jesusita Trail Easement Issues Cloud Restoration Efforts” points this out vividly.
Yet the current focus is on public benefit projects, including ones along the Santa Ynez River, a new trail connecting Orcutt to Las Flores Ranch, another along Santa Rosa Road, that will be located in areas that Parks is currently not equipped to handle.
Some argue for an organizational shift to the concept of an open space orientation that has an independent source of funding and equal standing within the overall county organizational chart.
Existing Parks leadership is not the issue; how Parks will be organized in the future and how it will be funded is.
Without serious consideration of that concept I wonder the monumental changes to recreation policy being proposed will truly be successful in Santa Barbara County.