Bishop Ranch is probably best known as those rolling, tree-dotted grasslands visible on the mountainside of Highway 101 between the Los Carneros and Storke Road ramps in the middle of Goleta. But if a development company’s current vision proves to be anything like the property’s future, the grasses will be replaced by nearly 1,200 homes, a commercial center, paved roads, bike trails, and parkland. Those are the basic specs of a conceptual plan submitted last Thursday to the City of Goleta by the Bishop Ranch LLC, which is asking for the city to consider a rezone of the 240-acre property from agriculture to urban. A hearing on the matter should occur in about three month’s time.
“All we’re asking for is the first step,” explained project consultant Urban McLellan on Friday morning, as he presented the plans in The Independent’s office. “We’re not asking for this specific project, just a study. We want an urban designation and here’s one alternative that can be studied. We want them to get the facts and then make a reasoned decision.” To do so, the Goleta City Council would have to direct the staff to commission an Environmental Impact Report assessing the goods and bads of such a zoning change; the submitted plans would be studied as one possible result, but the EIR would also examine a range of development possibilities as well as the “no project” alternative.
The conceptual plan for Bishop Ranch — which is owned by the University Exchange Corporation, no relation to UCSB — is much like the one presented in July 2008 when Bishop Ranch LLC’s CEO Michael Keston first applied to amend the General Plan zoning. But when what McLellan called a “one-sided staff report” came out about the re-zone, Keston pulled the application. Those plans were based on the input of a citizens advisory panel that met seven times from October 2007 through January 2008, and the current concept — which would retain 67 acres of open space, offer a location for a community center, have entry points on Cathedral Oaks and Glen Annie roads, and include a mix of single family, planned residential, and higher density housing — also reflects that process. “The larger property allows the chance to really master plan,” said McLellan, who said that all of the trees will be preserved and spoke about possible educational walking tours in the open areas.
But Goleta citizens, who were ready to fight against the zoning change back in 2008, are already gearing up to fight again. “I don’t see that developing into housing within the next 20 years or more because we don’t need it,” said government watchdog Barbara Massey. “They know quite honestly that the majority of the people in Goleta have no interest in converting agricultural land into residential or commercial.” According to an informal Independent.com reader’s poll taken in the fall of 2007, 61 percent of 101 voters disapproved of development at Bishop Ranch, 22 percent said some development could work if it was balanced, and 14 percent approved of development.
Massey personally took part in the citizen advisory panel, showed up to every one of the seven meetings early, and made sure to leave late. “They never really took the input of the people who had attended all of the meetings,” argued Massey, explaining that the final plan review meeting turned out to be a dinner at the Timbers Restaurant instead. “What they came up with was what they wanted to come up with in the beginning.” As such, Massey explained, “It was a waste of their time, and many of us felt is was a waste of our time too.”
Massey and others believe that Bishop Ranch can and should be farmed, but McLellan explained that such is not economically feasible. The submitted plans include three agricultural studies that show the soil to be marginal at best for profitable crops, and explain that the high cost of water would preclude any farming profits. Over the years, said McLellan, “There has been a minimal amount of agricultural activity, and they have all not worked out.” Today, said McLellan, “Nobody would do it.”
The application also details the history of the property, which was zoned for housing up until 1980, when the County of Santa Barbara updated its comprehensive plan and drew the property outside of the urban boundary. During the 1993 Goleta Community Plan process, the county put Bishop Ranch into the urban boundary, but kept it zoned agriculture, with the intent to re-assess that zoning 10 years later. But before that could happen, the City of Goleta incorporated in 2002, and that county-led reassessment never occurred. When the Goleta General Plan was approved a couple years later, the property remained agriculturally zoned.
However, McLellan explained, the application also shows that LAFCO — the Local Area Formation Commission, which oversees the creation of new jurisdictions in Santa Barbara County — intended for Bishop Ranch to one day be urbanized, which is why it was included within the city limits of Goleta. To McLellan, that’s evidence that the property should be developed one day. “It’s right in the middle of the city,” he said, adding that it would bring in more than $8 million in tax benefits once developed and employ 3,500 people during construction and 600 afterward.
Even in the unlikely event that these plans were to sail through the City of Goleta’s planning process — with zoning change quickly followed by development approval — McLellan still believes it would take a minimum of five years for any dirt to be turned at Bishop Ranch and a full 10 years or more before the project is completed. “This was our best shot at what was reasonable,” said McLellan, but quickly admitting in the same breath, “That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be cut back.”