When one heads north on Highway 154 toward Los Olivos, it takes 20 minutes or so to finally clear the windy pass. But once up and over, the highway soon opens up a view of a whole new world, one filled with majestic hills and rural landscapes as far as the eye can see. In the valley below, quiet, small towns filled with charm and beauty sit, unfazed by the surrounding world.
It was this scene that then-3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall had in mind when she presented the start of the Santa Ynez Community Plan back in 1998. Since then, valley residents have dedicated 65 community meetings (including six consecutive ones over the past year at the Planning Commission), 30,000 hours of staff time, and more than 35 county planners to the matter. Times in the valley have been a-changin’ since the inception of the plan more than 10 years ago, with business, traffic, wine tasting rooms, and population all increasing in that time. “We need to get the valley out of purgatory,” said Tish Beltranena. “We’re not going to heaven yet, but we need at least a set of rules to start working on it.”
The journey down the long, often contentious road that had as many valleys and peaks as Santa Ynez itself reached its final destination with the approval of the plan, the first comprehensive development strategy for the area. The goal of the plan is to maintain the rural and agricultural character of the area while ensuring growth occurs in an orderly fashion. As the final document explains, the final product was not reached easily or without controversy, but nevertheless, a plan is in place. “This is a compromise,” Beltranena said. “We all win a little. We all lose a little.”
While the plan Marshall started with in 1998 encompassed a much larger area (231,050 acres compared to the current 46,933 acres), she feels the goals she had from the outset-to make sure agriculture was not impeded by urban growth-can still be met. Indeed, the key land use goal for the plan aims to “maintain the Santa Ynez Valley’s rural character and agricultural tradition while accommodating some well-planned growth within township boundaries” compatible with surrounding areas. The plan serves as a blueprint for how to deal with these emerging issues and, as residents hope, serve as a freeze frame for the valley for the next 15 to 20 years. “Most people in the valley don’t want things to change very much, and that’s what this plan accomplishes,” said resident Bob Field. The plan, called the “most important piece of legislation in the valley’s history” by Santa Ynez Valley Alliance President Mark Oliver, covers 46,933 acres, including the townships of Los Olivos, Santa Ynez, and Ballard.
Among the details is a downzone for various properties in the area, resulting in a tightening of the region’s urban areas, and zoning changes that increase agricultural land protections. The downzoning, usually occurring in properties near urban limit lines, means a move in some properties from one residential unit per five acres to one per 40 acres. Some people, like Robert Lindemann-who will see 93 percent of his family’s property downzoned-said the move was the “right way forward.” The downzone, according to a letter from the Environmental Defense Center, was the only “alternative that addresses the many zoning issues currently threatening the future of agriculture in the Valley.” Others property owners, however, were not as thrilled their land would be rezoned, making it more difficult to build residential units on them. Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno-who abstained from a vote that okayed the plan-empathized with their position. “I have a real difficult time supporting downsizing when the folks really don’t want it,” he said.