More Mesa — the 265 acres of coastal bluff top grasslands located just west of Hope Ranch and east of Goleta Beach — remains an environmentally sensitive habitat, so there’s little chance developers could expand the acreage currently available for building homes on the site. So concluded a report that was commissioned by the property’s owner in 2007 but only released in December 2010 by the County of Santa Barbara, which had to pitch in money to complete the study because the owner, Robert Earl Holdings of the Sinclair Oil Company, stopped paying for the report’s publishing more than 18 months ago.
“Essentially, it says that More Mesa is just as sensitive as ever — same birds, same plants, same wetlands, and they’re even bigger than they were,” said the More Mesa Preservation Coalition leader Valerie Olson, who explained that the study reflected a 1981 analysis conducted by UCSB. “It’s really exciting news. That means they can’t change the development envelope.”
Olson said that Holding had paid for the study to do just that: open up more of the landscape for construction and thereby increase the potential sale value of the property, which, by her count, dropped from $110 million to $85 million in 2009, and is today around $40 million. But Olson claimed that Holding stopped paying for the study when he realized that the results were not to his liking.
Alex Tuttle of the county’s Planning & Development Department said that may not entirely be true. “We completed an administrative draft which he never saw. So he didn’t know the actual results though he may have had a sense,” Tuttle explained. “At the time, he was in the middle of trying to sell the property and did not want to continue financing completion of the study for a property he was intent on selling. This continued for quite some time without any sale being finalized. Ultimately, P&D decided to complete the draft of the study on our own.”
As it stands, the eastern flank of More Mesa is currently the only spot available for development, with a max build-out of about 70 homes. And that’s not likely to change, based on the 429-page report. “Riparian communities within the South Coast are recognized for their species-richness and due to the extent of losses of such habitats they are considered rare and seriously threatened,” explained the report, which was prepared by Rincon Consultants and showed evidence of some rare riparian habitat on More Mesa. “Today these habitats are, along with native grasslands and wetlands, among the most threatened in California.”
The report further concluded, “The results of the habitat sensitivity analysis indicate that the majority of the study site is sensitive, primarily because of its function as white-tailed kite nesting and foraging habitat…” and offered two recommendations: one would allow building on up to 21 acres, and the other would increase that to 40 acres by not including some of the weaker wetlands as sensitive.
An email was sent to Sinclair Oil Company for comments, but was not returned.