In a showdown that could pit Santa Barbara County Parks and the environmental community on one side and mountain biking and equestrian groups on the other, a public meeting to present and receive comment on the San Marcos Foothills Preserve Long Term Open Space Management Plan will be held at the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Incident Management Room at 6 p.m. Wednesday night, March 26. OEM is located at 4408 Cathedral Oaks Road a quarter mile west of the Highway 154 overpass.
In 2006, a development plan by Bermant Development Corporation for the 377-acre property called the “Preserve at San Marcos” was approved by the County and as part of the Bermant development plan, three parcels totaling 10 acres were donated to Santa Barbara County Parks for public park purposes, two parcels totaling 6.06 acres were donated to the Santa Barbara Soaring Association, and a 200-acre parcel was donated to the Trust for Public Land. That 200-acre parcel was later, in turn, donated to the County of Santa Barbara under the stipulation that it be used as a public open space and preserved in perpetuity.
County Parks has been managing the property under the guidance of an Interim Management Plan prepared in 2010. According to the final plan, which will be in effect for 10 years, “This long-term open space management plan is intended to support the Community Services Department’s ‘Connecting People to Opportunities’ mission, which is: to provide community, cultural, and recreational resources that sustain and enhance quality of life for all who live, work, and play in Santa Barbara County.”
Opposition to Exclusion
The rub, according to the Santa Barbara Mountain Bike Trail Volunteers (SBMTV), Santa Barbara Trails Council (SBTC) and the Los Padres Trail Riders, is that both bicycling and equestrian use are prohibited by the plan. “It’s ironic,” said SBMTV President Chris Orr, “that Community Services wants to exclude a large part of the community from using the Preserve.” The Final Plan cites a 2011 trail use survey conducted by the Front Country Trails Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force found that only 4 percent of the users were on bicycle and less than 1 percent were on horseback while more than 14 percent of the total number of visitors had a dog with them. The Plan concluded, “Given the trail user group statistics from 2011, which revealed that very few bicyclists and equestrians would make use of the trails on the Preserve, the County has decided to prohibit both activities from the Preserve public access areas.” It also noted “the primary environmental concern with equestrian use of the trails is the introduction of noxious weeds from seed contained in horse droppings.”
In an action letter sent out to key leaders in the trail community, SBMTV described the trail user survey data cited in the 2014 Preserve Management Plan as being significantly flawed. “A number of the trails used in the survey severely limit access to the equestrian and cyclist communities,” Orr said “and thus skew the numbers. The 2011 Task Force statistics cannot be used to accurately predict use at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve.” In fact, Orr added, “the San Marcos Foothill Preserve, if managed as multi-use, would fill a community need by offering excellent equestrian parking and wide open, non-technical trails that would appeal to and be used by a broad spectrum of trail users.”
In an effort to expand use of San Marcos Preserve to include bikes and horses, SBMTV is encouraging community members to write both 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and County Parks Manager Paddy Langland to lift the prohibition on cycling and equestrian use. For more information, visit the SBMTV website.
Preserve Coalition Focuses on Protection
Many of the environmental groups that joined forces to create the San Marcos Foothills Coalition in 1999 support the exclusion. According to the Coalition’s website, their mission is to “preserve, protect, and restore this biologically rich, scenic treasure in its entirety for the public benefit, now and for future generations.” Focused on natural resource protection and restoration of the newly formed open space, the Coalition, which includes the Environmental Defense Center, Audubon Society, Urban Creeks Council, and a number of neighborhood groups, has consistently advocated for a ban on bike and equestrian use.
Trails Council Weighs In
The Santa Barbara Trails Council (SBTC) is also in support of multi-use access to San Marcos Preserve. “Since the arrival of Spanish settlers well over 200 years ago, this area has been used for grazing of livestock, and in the modern era it was home to a dairy operation,” said SBTC President Otis Calef. “During the last 50 years, it has been used consistently by the local community for recreation, including among many activities the most basic of which are walking, horseback riding, and bicycling.
Describing the proposal to ban historic horse and bicycle use as a very harmful precedent, Calef noted the plan is contrary to the Land Use Element of the County’s Comprehensive Plan, which states that “opportunities for hiking and equestrian trails should be preserved, improved and expanded whenever compatible with surrounding land uses.”
“The plan to ban bicycles and horses is simply not based on any substantial evidence that those continued uses on the Preserve’s system of trails would make any significant negative impact on the natural environment of the Preserve,” he said. “One of the most important aspects of planning for our community is to provide connective links between our parks, trails and open spaces to achieve a true system of public trails that is available to everyone. “The San Marcos Preserve is connected by the bridge over Highway 154 to Via Chaparral and the equestrian properties in that neighborhood to the San Antonio Creek Trail and Tucker’s Grove Park. To arbitrarily remove San Marcos Preserve from this system would clearly be in violation of the General Plan and would be a significant step backwards for the future development of public trails and access.”