A handful of local community environmentalists is making a last-chance effort to save the last remaining part of the San Marcos foothills from development.
The existing San Marcos Foothills Preserve is a Santa Barbara County park including 200 acres of open space and hiking trails, and environmentalists want to purchase the adjacent, undeveloped property to preserve it as open space.
If approved, road and utility infrastructure construction for the development, dubbed the Preserve at San Marcos, could start this winter.
“Our goal is a win-win,” Gevirtz said. “If we can raise the funds needed to purchase the property while providing the owners with a fair settlement, that would be great.”
Gevirtz has been meeting quietly with Chuck Lande, president and CEO of the Chadmar Group, to assess whether he might be interested in selling rather than developing.
While Lande is open to meeting with CIR, he emphasizes that the settlement that led to the approval of the Preserve at San Marcos project in 2006 has led to the preservation of almost 90 percent of the original 377-acre proposal.
“That remaining 10 percent is what has paid for the donation of 200 acres of the San Marcos Preserve,” Lande said, “along with the 30-acre passive park and another 98 acres of unbuildable private open space.”
Lande also noted that the establishment of the San Marcos Foothills Preserve did not require use of any government funds to create it.
“To preserve 90 percent of any property without fundraising or government funds is a model that should be followed,” he said. “If Elihu (Gervitz) has ideas, I am always happy to talk more.”
The grassland habitat on the upper foothill property “is at least as important and perhaps more important than the grasslands on the protected preserve,” Gevirtz, senior ecologist for Channel Island Restoration, says as we gaze over the property.
Owen, the executive director, agrees with this assessment.
“The portion of the foothills that are about to be developed should never have been left out when the Preserve was created in 2006,” he adds.
Standing near a cluster of signs noting the intent to develop on the property, Owen gazes up over the uphill foothills. Now mostly tall invasive grasses, mustard and other non-native plants, Owen laments the loss of one of the area’s most important habitats.
“At one time, this area supported ecologically rare native grasslands that provided habitat to birds and other animals,” he said. “Areas like this are becoming extinct in Santa Barbara County and saving these last remaining acres is essential.”
If there is any chance of finding enough funds to purchase the land, it would need to happen soon.
There is a South Board of Architectural Review scheduled for Sept. 4 to review three of the eight parcels, and another hearing set for Sept. 18.
The developer’s application for a zoning clearance is also being reviewed, and county planner Nicole Lieu said that could be completed within the next four to six weeks.
Complications to Funding a Purchase
When considering the potential purchase cost for the property, Channel Islands Restoration commissioned an appraisal for the property and got a $5.5 million answer.
The Chadmar Group has already made substantial investments in the land, so the total amount would be higher than that.
Since public funds cannot be used for purchases in excess of the assessed value of the property, a community fundraising effort will be required.
Channel Islands Restoration employees are trying to find one or two contributors wealthy enough to create a serious proposal.
Samantha Eddy is developing a local citizens group to raise awareness of the impending development and support fundraising efforts.
“Growing up on a property bordered by a 360-acre Land Trust preserve made me aware of how important places like the upper foothills are,” she said. “This land would be far better as a community space than it would for a few homes.”
Currently, the upper foothills are filled with invasive weeds that make it difficult to envision what the land might be if preserved as open space. but Gevirtz said that might not always be the case.
“Historically, when cattle were grazed here, there was a rich variety of birds and other wildlife species” Gevirtz said, “including the burrowing owl, white-tailed kite, meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow, among others that made the area home.
“With proper management, use of sheep to minimize the invasive species, we can return the land back to becoming a rich, diverse natural community.”