Deputy Public Works Director Chris Sneddon explains that that there is enough width on the lower half of the Modoc project to shift the road over four feet. The would provide enough space for a Class 1 path where he is standing. Note how far the trees are set back from the pavement. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

After spending loads of time with loads of people on both sides of the Modoc Multiuse Bike Path controversy, I feel like there may be a better chance of world peace breaking out than finding common ground on an agreeable route. 

Well, maybe things aren’t that bad, but sometimes it seems like getting to yes is more like trying to untwist a pretzel without breaking it. 

As I mentioned in an earlier article titled “County, Residents Face Tough Choice on Route for South Coast Class 1 Bike Corridor,” despite all the bluster there are really only two choices at that time for how the route could go.

Note the right-of-way marker and how close the palms are to the paved bike path. Modoc Road is too narrow to construct a Class 1 bike path on the road side of the palms. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

The most straightforward of these was known as Alternative A. The route would be aligned parallel to Modoc Road along the edge of the Modoc Preserve on the county right-of-way.

The second was Alternative B, which would have followed a more scenic path but also taken the trail through a fairly significant part of the Modoc Preserve.

The first would have required the removal of a lot of trees, including the 27 Canary Island palms that form the scenic Modoc Road corridor. The second would have saved many more trees, including the palms but impact the preserve directly.

Both were strenuously opposed by the Community Association for Modoc Preserve (CAMP), an ad hoc group formed initially by nearby residents to protest the county’s plan for the bike path.

County Deputy Transportation Director Chris Sneddon points out trees that have been marked for possible removal. Shifting the road lanes over 4 feet will allow the path to be constructed without removal of almost all of them. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Since that time, two things have occurred that on one hand are moving the project along and on the other slowing it down.

The first was the 5-0 vote by the Board of Supervisors to approve the mitigated negative declaration for the project in early December 2022 and send it on to the California Transportation Commission for its approval. 

The commission will be reviewing the project at its March 22-23 meetings in Los Angeles and is expected to approve it. This will provide Public Works access to funding and allow it to move into the design phase of the project.

CAMP Sues County 

The other that occurred recently was the December 2022 filing of a lawsuit by CAMP challenging the legality of the minimum negative declaration.

Currently, the case has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle. A series of settlement conferences began in late January and could continue through the rest of 2023 if an agreement is not reached sooner between the county and CAMP.

Whether CAMP will be willing to make the compromises needed to settle the lawsuit is an open question.

Recently, I met with several of the group’s members at the La Cumbre Plaza Starbucks to get a better understanding of their views. The next day, we walked the proposed route.

I think it is important to say from listening to their concerns that many of those involved with CAMP are seriously worried about how a Class 1 bike path will impact the Modoc Preserve and reports that scores of trees would have to be removed to build it. 

It is clear for them the fight is both personal and emotional. Many in the CAMP group fought hard to see the creation of the preserve become a reality and do not want to see it harmed.

Chris Sneddon points out that the roadway narrows along the upper half of the proposed route, eliminating the space needed for the Class 1 path without some intrusion into the Preserve. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Supporting the Greenbelt Option

Currently, the CAMP position is focused on what the group is calling the “Greenbelt Option,” which calls for the path to stay on the existing paved portion of the Modoc Road corridor and county right-of-way. 

As we walked along the edge of Modoc Road, they explained how eliminating the north side bike lane, shifting the roadway over and using the right-of-way will allow the path to be built without removing trails or compromising the preserve.

But their plan does have tradeoffs, which Public Works finds problematic. 

“When you build major transportation projects like this you build for the future,” Deputy Director of Transportation Chris Sneddon told me as we walked the same section of Modoc several weeks later. 

“This means having a separate lane for people who are comfortable riding in traffic, the more experienced users who ride at higher speeds and the emerging e-bike Community,” Sneddon explained. “And then you also want to provide opportunity on a multi-use path for people who don’t want to be in traffic.”

The point is a basic one: crowding everyone onto a single 10-foot-wide path, especially when families with kids, those with accessible needs and others will all be using it.  

Sneddon also notes that long-term plans call for adding a sidewalk on the north side of Modoc Road would no longer be possible.

Further up the road the roadside slope steepens. Intrusion along this section will be needed to provide room for cut and fill material to be used and retaining walls to be added. Appropriate native vegetation along what is now non-native grass can be used to provide a visual buffer. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Modoc Preserve is Privately Owned

Most users of the preserve may not know that it is located on private property. That the public is allowed to use it is a testament to the generosity of La Cumbre Mutual Water Co.

As owner of the preserve, LCW entered into an agreement with The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County in 1999 to preserve the land as a natural reserve. 

Included in the Deed of Easement are a number of prohibited uses, including subdivisions at the extreme to any other commercial uses, addition of roads or structures or motorized vehicles.

The deed left it more or less up to the Land Trust to manage the land and carry out the preserve’s primary purpose — “preservation and protection of land in its natural, open space, scenic and wildlife habitat condition.” 

LCW has authorized the Land Trust to negotiate on its behalf when dealing with negotiations that could impact the preserve.

Design Guidelines

To get a better understanding of what is acceptable and what not of how to proceed, Land Trust Executive Director Meredith Hendrick has been working with the group’s conservation attorney and members of its Land Committee with specific professional expertise in land use, real estate law, and landscape architecture, to provide the design guidelines to the county.

As a result, the Land Trust has developed a two page document titled “Design Guidelines and Easement Restrictions for the Modoc Multi-Use Path” to guide discussions with the county.

The document includes issues relating to acceptable path surfaces, use of retaining walls and cut/fill slopes, lightning, fencing, tree protection and long-term management. 

Some are specific such as use of asphalt or pavement (not acceptable), lighting (not allowed) or use of retaining walls and cut and fill slopes (as minimal as possible).

In general, most deal in shades of gray. Paved paths are not acceptable because they look more like roads. Retaining walls should be no higher than a foot or two. 

Note the white flagging that marks the approximate location of the county right-of-way. Intruding slightly into the preserve and aligning the path along the inside edge of the palm trees will protect them from removal. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Dealing with Tradeoffs

In general, the design guidelines provide a sensible and balanced approach to generate a more collaborative discussion on what the Land Trust will find acceptable and what perhaps not.

Left out is a discussion of how to deal with the tradeoffs that are always a part of the equation. 

What degree of difference is there between a 10-foot-wide decomposed granite pathway to an asphalt-based one colored to match the surrounding soil for instance?

How much should maintenance play in the decision-making process if non-paved surfaces can’t meet the heavy use a Class 1 path creates?

If the route is designed only to the outer 10 or 15 feet of the preserve and does not impact the quality of the natural resources, does that matter?

Or, what if aligning the trail on the county right-of-way side of the palm trees will force their removal but aligning it on the other side of them and inside the preserve will save them?

This leaves the Land Trust in a difficult position: trying to figure out how to maintain consistency with the conservation easement while at the same time working out solutions that balance principles and tradeoffs.

Note right-of-way marker. All of the palm trees that form the Modoc corridor will be saved if the route follows their interior edge. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Public Works in a Foxhole

It doesn’t surprise me if the guys at Public Works are hiding out in a set of newly-built fox holes given the intensity of the response of the CAMP group has generated. 

Criticisms of the project have been both loud and harsh. The number of opponents to the project is large and growing. In July 2022, the group was pushing to hit the 1,500-member level. Today, they number into the low 5000s.

Many of them are really unhappy with the project and from my talks with several of the CAMP members it is difficult to see what will appease them. 

Other than, of course, the Greenbelt Option.

Visualizing a Hybrid Alternative

As Sneddon and I walked the edge of Modoc Road, he shared with me what might be called the hybrid alternative, combining much of what is proposed by the CAMP group for the lower half of the route and minimal intrusion into the Preserve along the upper half.

At one point, Sneddon pointed down to the pavement where I can saw a set of hash marks. “Given the width of the road we’ve been able to shift the centerline over 4 feet,” he said.

This will allow enough room for a full width path on the preserve side and also keep the north side bike path intact.

Greenbelters should be extremely happy with this.

But I could see there was a problem when we reached Vista Clara Road. At that point, the roadway begins to narrow, the north side bike path gets skinnier and there is less room for flexibility. 

More critical, where along the lower half of the route the majority of the trees are set 4 to 5 feet away from the edge of the road surface along the the upper half all of the Canary Island palms are within inches of it.

What that means basically is that there isn’t enough room for a Class 1 bike path along this stretch even if the north side bike path were to be eliminated.

The solution Sneddon pointed out is to have the route follow the mid part of the slope right along the Preserve’s boundary to the point where the Canary Island palm corridor begins and from there continue along the inside edge of the palms to the end end of the Preserve boundary.

Further up the road the roadside slope steepens. Intrusion along this section will be needed to provide room for cut and fill material to be used and retaining walls to be added. Appropriate native vegetation along what is now non-native grass can be used to provide a visual buffer. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Not only does the hybrid route minimize the intrusion into the preserve it may also be the only way to save them. There simply isn’t enough room on the roadway for a Class 1 bike path.

From the perspective of Public Works, this Hybrid Alternative isn’t ideal. The better approach would be to have more separation between the Class 1 path and the roadway both for safety and aesthetics.

But it does serve to keep entry into the preserve to the absolute minimum and does what the CAMP group has been screaming about for months … it saves the trees.

Getting to Yes

A half year after my first article much has changed and much of this is good news.

Public Works has gone to great lengths to adjust its path alignment to meet the concerns expressed both by CAMP, the Land Trust and the La Cumbre Mutual Water Co.

The Land Trust has developed a set of guidelines that can be used as an excellent starting point for working out path design that most will find acceptable.

The California Transportation Commission is poised this month to issue a final approval for the project that will allow the funds needed for the design planning to commence. 

As a result there are now more opportunities for the community work together to finalize a design for the last remaining segment of the historic South Coast active transportation corridor.

Getting to yes means working together to transform this narrow section of Modoc Road into a corridor that provides safe multi-use access. Routing the path along a narrow section of the Preserve can meet these needs and protect the integrity of the Preserve. Credit: Ray Ford / Noozhawk Photo

Avoiding No

As I’ve often discovered, you can’t get to yes unless you’re able to avoid no. 

The CAMP lawsuit is now in place and without meaningful dialogue and a willingness to accommodate some form of compromise, upcoming settlement conferences may not produce much and could led to a civil trial that will consume even more time. 

But what will this lawsuit accomplish? 

If saving the trees was one of your most important goals you can check that off. The hybrid alternative will accomplish that.

If protecting the Modoc Preserve from being despoiled was another important goal you can check that off as well. The revised alignment align the trail along the north edge of the Preserve where impact on the main part of the Preserve will be minimal.

Protect the Canary Island Palms? You can check that off, too. A slight adjustment to the seasonal drainage and the equestrian path saves all of them.

If Not, Then What?

Perhaps the CAMP group has so much emotional investment in their effort to save the trees and by extension protect the Modoc Preserve from encroachment they will miss this important point.

The Class 1 bike path is going to be built. This is is a settled decision. This isn’t about whether or not it will happen but where and how and what we save.

It is time for CAMP to figure out what it wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

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Ray Ford, Noozhawk Outdoors Writer | @riveray

Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at Click here for his website, Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.