Goleta Gets Development Friendly
By Martha Sadler Photographs by Paul Wellman
Michael Bennett, Eric Onnen, and Roger Aceves took the oath of office as members of the young City of Goleta’s second City Council, replacing Cynthia Brock, Jack Hawxhurst, and Margaret Connell. Goleta’s administrative staff welcomed the new councilmembers with sparkling cider and a prettily decorated sheet cake from Costco. The latter was dwarfed, though, by the ornate, multi-layered pastry with thick butter frosting delivered by the Bacara Resort and Spa, sent to celebrate the pro-growth candidates’ ascension to power, along with a second creation for sitting councilmember Jean Blois. The Bacara and Blois both had every reason to feel festive, besides the fact that it was Blois’s 79th birthday.
For nearly five years, ever since the City of Goleta’s inception in 2002, Blois has voted in a minority of one, watching helplessly as her four fellow councilmembers lovingly handcrafted a slow-growth General Plan to guide the new city for the next 20 years. “The lone voice for business,” Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce CEO Kristen Amyx called her. Now the tables have turned, and Blois was practically hoisted on the shoulders of her newly elected colleagues, who also handed her the mayor’s gavel.
It is unlikely the Goleta City Council’s new majority will actually tear the original council’s General Plan into little pieces and toss it out the window, even though their campaigns focused on attacking the plan and the process by which it was created. “Actually, it’s a good plan,” said Bennett, shortly before being sworn in on Monday night. “It just needs to be corrected.”
He was singing a decidedly less conciliatory tune at his election night victory party, when he was overheard saying to a circle of supporters, “The first thing we do is get rid of Cynthia’s butterfly.” Perhaps his objections to the city’s monarch butterfly logo are purely aesthetic. However, it is difficult to resist the symbolic implications. The butterfly is a specific icon of the original City Council’s — and Brock’s — fight to preserve Ellwood Mesa from development. In general terms, it represents the city’s commitment to resist development pressures.
It remains to be seen whether the monarch will be replaced by the clipper ship that graces the logo of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce, which led the charge to topple the incumbents. Chamber CEO Amyx was the very first member of the public to speak to the newly configured council, saying she looked forward to a close working relationship in creating housing and commercial growth. Irrespective of the butterfly logo’s fate, a new flag is flying over Goleta’s City Hall.
The new councilmembers insist their campaign contributions will not determine their decisions. However, their pro-property-rights campaign positions seemed to parallel the stance of major donors who want to develop land in the City of Goleta. Most of these donations were funneled through the South Coast PAC and Goletans for Fiscal Responsibility — both closely associated with the chamber. Thanks to the efforts of these groups, Bennett and Onnen, the two top vote-getters, outspent the incumbents by more than two to one.
Besides pressure from their supporters, Onnen and Bennett face pressure from their supporters’ lawsuits against the city. The Bacara and several other would-be developers filed suit as soon as the ink was dry on the General Plan. These lawsuits all charge the plan is internally inconsistent and therefore invalid, echoing the chamber’s accusation that the plan pretends to allow more development than it really does. Restraints imposed by certain parts of the General Plan — the noise element, the transportation element, the housing element, and the Environmental Impact Report — would stop most new development, or so the argument goes, and those are the areas where Goletans can expect revisions to the General Plan.
What follows is a prediction of things to come in Goleta’s near future, based on the new councilmembers’ campaign platforms as well as their campaign financial statements:
Housing: Expect to see lots of new housing on Hollister. The newly seated majority opposed housing policies in the General Plan. These require developers to offer 55 percent of new housing at prices affordable to low-income and moderate-income buyers. This requirement applies if the developments are located along a key section of Hollister Avenue earmarked for high-density development to satisfy state fair-housing mandates. In the rest of the city, the General Plan requires 30 percent affordability. The new councilmembers have said the 55 percent below-market requirement makes new home building impossible. The Chamber of Commerce has said it would support a 25 percent affordability rule. Onnen and Bennett echoed that, while Aceves said during his campaign that 30 percent seemed reasonable.
Bishop Ranch: This is a 290-acre block of fallow agricultural land that lies south of Cathedral Oaks Road between Glen Annie and Los Carneros roads. The owners wanted to develop it, but the outgoing City Council majority wouldn’t let them — they earmarked Bishop Ranch in the General Plan for agricultural use only. There is reason to believe that the new majority will be friendlier to the owners’ plans for the land: Blois and Bennett took part in community-participation brainstorms for its use. A brochure published in 2003 presents an initial conceptual plan calling for 1,500 homes, a 24-acre public park, and neighborhood shopping.
Shelby Property: Once a 14-acre avocado orchard farmed by the Couvillan family, these 13.9 acres are located north of Cathedral Oaks Road, a few hundred yards west of Bishop Ranch. The original City Council kept the land’s agricultural designation despite the objection of its owners, the Shelby Family Partnership LLC, which has said it wants to build housing there. In fact, the partners showed the city a plan made up entirely of affordable workforce housing, but to no avail. The owners filed suit against the city in the wake of the General Plan’s adoption. It is likely they will find it unnecessary to pursue that lawsuit. The Shelby partnership donated $16,400 to Onnen and Bennett’s campaigns.
Hollister Avenue & Las Armas Road: The Oly Chadmar Sandpiper General Partnership seeks to build 111 residential units on a 14.5-acre parcel at Hollister Avenue and Las Armas Road. A $32-million lawsuit brought by Chadmar was heard by the California Supreme Court in October. The Court of Appeal had earlier ruled the City of Goleta was within its rights to reject the development because the permit was issued by a lame-duck county government after the people of Goleta voted to incorporate as a city. All parties still await the Supreme Court ruling, but even if it goes against Chadmar, the parnership now has a chance of getting its development approved by the city.
Bacara Resort & Spa: The Bacara has preliminary plans to create another 62 rentable condos adjacent to its current buildings. The Bacara insists this extension was part of the hotel’s original development approval. In preliminary negotiations, the original council was pursuing Haskell’s Beach public access agreements in exchange for even considering these new plans. When the matter appeared on the agenda immediately following the election, newly lame-duck councilmember and Bacara watchdog Hawxhurst dramatically pulled the item off the table.
Mathilda & Ellwood Beach Drives: Owner Alan Gottlieb wants to trade his vacant parcel — replete with wetlands, a stream, and monarch-harboring eucalyptus trees — or be compensated for it. It was zoned for five homes when it was under county jurisdiction, but the original City Council designated it as parkland. Gottlieb said comparably sized properties host 8-14 homes.
Overpasses: The outgoing council included two freeway overpasses in the transportation element of the General Plan for bicyclists and pedestrians. The chamber strenuously objected that any overpasses should also accommodate cars, and the new council majority shares that point of view. These overpasses and other transportation infrastructure expansions will literally pave the way for other projects that at present are little more than a gleam in the eye of developers. Insubstantial for the time being, however, is funding to build overpasses.
Mobile Homes: The original City Council defended rent control in the city’s mobile home parks, engaging in a long court battle against Rancho Mobile Homes owner Daniel Guggenheim, who sued to eradicate rent control laws. The city’s 450 mobile home residents will now ask the City Council to help them battle a new threat — namely, the park owners’ intention to get out of the mobile home business and build condos instead. Guggenheim has so far reported $9,800 in donations to Onnen and Bennett.
Venoco Oil & Gas: Venoco, which has reported $10,000 in donations to Onnen and Bennett, is looking at the possibility of slant drilling from Platform Holly for transport to its Ellwood onshore facility. It has also applied to the State Lands Commission for permission to reactivate an old oil pier east of the Bacara at Haskell’s Beach.