In True Grit, the teenage protagonist, on the trail of her father’s killer, would bluff people who tried to block her with the impending wrath of lawyer J. Noble Daggett. Eventually, a U.S. Marshal says, “Lawyer Daggett again!” and the Texas Ranger he’s with responds that she draws him the same way some folks draw their guns. For Sue Higman, it wasn’t a fictional lawyer but Pearl Chase’s spirit that was invoked at every public hearing, civic gathering, or private conversation. Once, when Sue approached the lectern to testify on the need to preserve a quiet Santa Barbara landmark, a councilmember was overheard whispering, “Here comes Pearl Chase again.”
Sue, who was a “Pearl’s Girl,” had been mentored in persistence by the civic leader when it came to stopping big projects. And preserving the Mesa’s Wilcox Property became Sue’s last big battle. It probably never occurred to Chase, who died in 1979 at the age of 90, that Wilcox would need “saving.” The Mesa was one of the later city neighborhoods to build out. When Chase was young, going up and down Carrillo Hill to get there was one slow slog by horse and buggy, and it was home to small farms, commercial nurseries, and mini-ranches. Wilcox had been a nursery, which explains its paved driveway from Cliff Drive, stone remnants, and rich array of trees and foliage planted by former owners. It hadn’t been virgin landscape for a hundred years.
By the 1980s, community priorities were changing. Outer State Street and La Cumbre Plaza had been developed, their Los Angeles–like traffic congestion angering and alarming residents. Developers sometimes seemed a step ahead of the city. At East Beach, an L.A. developer “converted” Kingswood Village into El Escorial’s suites-hotel, evicting the city’s community development director in the process.
When two respected area businesspeople announced they were optioning the Wilcox property to build high-end housing, a plan later changed to a senior retirement community, Santa Barbarans were dismayed. Sue and her husband, Jim Higman, were livid. Their small ranch house looked out over Hendry’s Beach to Wilcox, where Jim, who died in 2012, and Sue hiked its abandoned road weekly to watch the sunset. But Wilcox was zoned “residential”; the new owners had a legal right to build.
Sue vowed to fight. In 1987, she was almost 70 and long retired. She was near the age Pearl Chase had been in a long-ago anti-high-rise referendum campaign. Where Alice Keck Park Memorial Garden sits today, an 8- to 10-story apartment building was approved in 1968 after a long, contentious debate. Pearl Chase knew a successful referendum wouldn’t be easy. She mobilized Pearl’s Girls, including Sue, whose phone rang that week, asking for her help in alerting the community.
Sue later became treasurer and president of the Community Arts Association’s Plans and Planting Committee, Pearl Chase’s organization. Her training with Chase and her experience stopping an already approved, big project were lessons she carried the rest of her life. They influenced her active involvement with the Sierra Club, State Parks, Get Oil Out, and other environmental organizations in Santa Barbara.
In the Wilcox fight, Sue never wavered in her determination. Before the days of emailing, she would repeatedly scan her files of names and phone numbers, exhorting acquaintances, allies, and affinity groups to attend hearings, write letters, and make phone calls to “Save the Wilcox Property.” She did it in the design review phase, the environmental review, Planning Commission hearings, City Council appeals, through the Coastal Commission, in an election, and through the project revisions and redesigns. She never stopped, and she rarely doubted, at least in public, that they’d succeed.
But, initially, Sue had no clear idea how to get there. Unlike Pearl Chase, Sue couldn’t write a big check to lawyer up. Unlike Pearl and Harold Chase, Sue wasn’t close enough to the area’s social or financial elites to ask them to pony up money to buy Wilcox. She couldn’t pick up the phone, the way Chase did, and call the governor, the mayor, or the city manager and expect her call to be taken, let alone have them agree to do what she wanted. If her goal was clear, her path forward wasn’t. Ingenuity and relentless cheerleading would have to substitute for money or patrician access.
One friend mentioned the campaign for Los Osos near San Luis Obispo, and, suddenly, Sue was able to unveil a tool no one had ever heard of — SWAP, or Small Wilderness Area Preservation — to seek grants. Another pointed her to the 1994 Coastal Preservation Conference at UCSB, where top land-protection gurus showcased different techniques. Sue was riveted by the Trust for Public Lands’ (TPL) Debra Geiler, who said TPL had never done a “big project” in this area but was “very interested in new, local opportunities.”
Within days, Geiler was back in Santa Barbara, meeting with Sue — and Sue’s staunch ally, neighbor Marjorie Hawksworth — the Coastal Resources Information Center, then-mayor Hal Conklin, city administrator Sandra Tripp-Jones, Land Trust of Santa Barbara County’s David Anderson, et al. A grassroots, area-wide campaign to save the Wilcox Property was launched, with the consent of developers Wayne Siemens and Dave Grootenhuis, to try to buy the property for the community. Two years later, when civic leaders gathered at Wilcox to dedicate the Douglas Family Preserve, Sue had been transformed from a Doña Quixote of lost causes to a Local Hero.
That was 20 years ago. The willingness of the landowners to consider an at cost buyout of development rights was, and still is, rare. The preserve became a magnet for South Coast dog walkers, fertilized in ways those with nice footwear rarely forget — something Miss Chase might have frowned on — which perturbed Sue to the end. Over time, the site’s majestic foliage was decimated by pine pitch canker and other botanical pests, brought to the once hard-to-find park by visitors tracking it in from faraway places. But the park, well-managed by the city, remains an undeveloped green space.
Sue wasn’t always easy to work with — and neither was Pearl Chase. She didn’t always level with allies, elected officials, civil servants, or reporters trying to help her, and it might have been serendipity — and a swath of people and policies — that made Wilcox/Douglas happen. But in the end, Sue was the “mother of the Wilcox Property.” When she died on May 27 at age 97, one of the last of Pearl’s Girls, she died content.
Lee Moldaver is a longtime member of Citizens Planning Association, of which Sue Higman was a lifelong member and Pearl Chase an early boardmember.