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Naples

Nevermore or Never Better?

To visit Naples in springtime is to bear witness to the sublime.
The Gaviota coastal mesa is a sea of swaying mustard grasses that
give way to the shimmer of the Pacific and the majesty of the
Channel Islands beyond. A rolling patchwork of green foothills and
centuries-old agricultural land climbs inland toward the Santa Ynez
Mountains in a procession of oak trees, willows, sycamores, sage
scrub, and wildflowers. The land is dotted by the occasional modest
California ranch-style home tucked between avocado orchards and
meandering dirt roads. A northwest breeze brings with it hints of
lavender and echoes of the crashing surf along the kelp-covered
reef below. A mere three miles removed from the suburban sprawl of
Goleta and the clogged freeway exits of Santa Barbara, Naples is
the southern entrance to the Gaviota Coast, a gateway to open
space, fresh air, and quiet contemplation.

Treasured by the wildlife scientific community as one of the 15
most biologically diverse and ecologically significant regions in
the world, Gaviota is home to more than 195 distinct species of
birds, 60 species of fish, and 1,400 plant and animal
species — including threatened and endangered critters like the
steelhead trout, the tidewater goby, the white-tailed kite, the
red-legged frog — that have uneasily coexisted with human
interlopers for hundreds of years. And since the 19th century, the
Naples area has survived a weird and wild gauntlet of proposed
developments and broken dreams. From ancient Chumash villages and
haunted churches to exotic orchid farms, submarine attacks,
proposed golf courses, a copy of Naples, Italy, the land is again
staring into the teeth of development. The latest Naples visionary,
or conqueror, is an Orange County developer named Matt Osgood.
Armed with a lot-division map circa 1888, Osgood is looking to
build 54 luxury homes on a 485-acre stretch of land now known as
the Santa Barbara Ranch. The county process is well underway, with
the draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the project due in
a matter of weeks.

Looking back on the area’s colorful history, and looking closer
at Osgood’s dream to make his mark on the larger community and
forever alter the socioeconomic standards of a hunk of land that
historically doesn’t take too kindly to strangers, one might think
the planets governing Gaviota’s fate have been perfectly aligned
for hundreds of years, waiting to explode like springtime or crash
and burn at this precise moment in time.

The Hills Have Eyes At first blush, the Santa
Barbara Ranch project appears to have begun in 1999, when Osgood
and his Vintage Communities corporation purchased the land from the
Morehart Land Company for an undisclosed lump of cash. However, the
story really begins a half millennium back, with the Chumash tribes
who first called the shores of Naples home. In a log entry dated
October 16, 1542 — some 50 years after Columbus “discovered” Puerto
Rico — legendary explorer Juan Cabrillo described native villages
that sat opposite each other on the sandy shores of a canyon mouth
in what is now Dos Pueblos Ranch along the Gaviota Coast.

Although the Kuyamu and Mikiw settlements eventually succumbed
to invaders and faded away in the bloody Mission era, the land they
occupied became one of the area’s most noted original
Mexican-Spanish land grants. In December 1842, 30-year-old
Irish-born Nicolas Den, who had come to America several years prior
to work for a cousin’s mercantile firm, applied for and received
the approximately 15,500-acre Los Dos Pueblos land grant. During
the days of Don Nicolas, the ranch grew to be one of the most
successful cattle operations in the area. However, fortunes quickly
changed at Dos Pueblos after Nicolas’s death from pneumonia in
March 1862. The changing political landscape of California, coupled
with the Great Drought of 1864 forced Nicolas’s 10 children to
split up the once mighty rancho and sell it off piecemeal in a
bitterly litigious effort to support the family.

In 1887, John Williams, a vacationing real estate speculator
from Ohio, purchased 900 acres of the ranch at the height of
California’s first land boom for roughly $50,000 (= $1,026,000
today). Envisioning an American version of the Italian tourist
destination Naples, the 45-year-old Williams and his wife Alice
immediately set to designing their “City of Naples-by-the-Sea,”
drafting a grid-style map of more than 250 city blocks with streets
christened old world names like Capri, Florence, and Pompeii, with
the luxurious Crescent Beach Hotel at its center. The Naples Hotel
and the Italian-themed dance hall, post office, schoolhouse, and
church were all hastily built for what Williams imagined would
become the number-one vacation spot for America’s wealthy.

As it turned out, Williams grossly overestimated the demand for
such a destination and his vision was dealt a two-pronged death
blow within two years. The necessary investors he hoped to attract
never materialized, while the Pacific Railroad Company failed to
lay train tracks into the area as quickly as promised. Ironically,
the map that Williams filed with the county recorder on July 23,
1888 became his most enduring legacy and perhaps the most
significant part of the current Naples puzzle. The map, innocuously
titled “Plan of Naples Township,” identified more than 400
buildable lots on the property.

Fast forward 90 years, to when Morehart Land Company of
Carpinteria acquired a majority of the former Naples town site plus
additional acreage of Dos Pueblos Ranch bought from Signal Oil,
which assumed control of the land following successive ownership
and agricultural endeavors by Herbert Wylie and Sam Mosher, noted
for their almonds and orchids, respectively. Immediately after its
successful land grab, the Morehart Company immediately set about
selling off plots to friends and family, creating a virtual
checkerboard of family-owned lots. At that time, the land was zoned
for unlimited agriculture with a 10-acre minimum lot size, making
the Morehart investment extremely lucrative. But the wind shifts
quickly on the coast. In the early 1980s, with the adoption of the
county’s Local Coastal Plan (LCP), the Naples area was rezoned
AGG-II-100, requiring a minimum 100-acre lot size per residential
development. Anticipating the conflicts this would create with
older property maps, the county also adopted antiquated subdivision
regulations calling for the merger of substandard lots as a
prerequisite for future development. Seeking to protect the value
of their Naples holdings, the Morehart family sued the county;
after more than a decade of contentious litigation, the California
Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that John Williams’s fanciful map of
Naples lots, drawn in 1888, was indeed valid. One year later, the
county officially recognized 233 legal lots on the Naples property,
forever altering the landscape of the coastal development debate;
the Morehart Company had just begun to fight, however, and quickly
renewed its legal efforts to have more than 400 lots recognized by
the county. Part of the county’s LCP was a Naples-specific
stipulation requiring the county to “discourage residential
development” at Naples by encouraging the transfer of development
rights (TDR) to more urban areas. Commonly known as Policy 2-13,
the rule further states that rezoning at Naples is permissible only
if TDRs are determined to be infeasible.

Land of Oz In 1997, Matt Osgood was introduced
to the Morehart family patriarch, Jack Morehart, while visiting
Santa Barbara from Malibu. According to Osgood, he and Jack hit it
off instantly and their families became friends almost overnight.
At the time, Morehart was already doing some estate planning, and
as Osgood put it, “I showed up at the exact right time.” Within a
matter of months, Morehart sold Osgood and his Vintage Communities
luxury development firm 485 acres of Naples property and its
associated 219 antiquated parcels. The deal hung on a Memorandum of
Understanding (MOU) with the county that featured a proposal from
Osgood to develop 88 houses north of Highway 101, while selling a
vast majority of the oceanfront lots south of the freeway to a land
trust, thus preserving the coastal blufftop forever.

According to Osgood and his consultant Mark Lloyd, this first
MOU fell apart for two reasons. First, the Trust for Public Land
(TPL), the preferred purchasing agency for coastal development
rights, could never commit to the roughly $20 million that Osgood
wanted for the bluff. After TPL refused to ante up, Osgood went
back to his Malibu roots and enlisted the services of the Malibu
Nature Trust to purchase the blufftop development rights. Scoffing
at the outsider agency, the county quashed this deal and eventually
terminated the MOU. Osgood was undeterred, returning in April 2002
with unanimous support from the County Board of Supervisors for a
second MOU. The new MOU called for 54 luxury homes, to be
splattered on both sides of the freeway, ranging in size from
3,700- to 13,300-square-foot. Mixed among the estate homes were
plans for a full-scale equestrian center, a public parking lot for
beach access, and varying degrees of continued cattle and farming
operations; the new MOU also included a promise from the Morehart
family to terminate all remaining litigation against the county.
Not coincidentally, the Naples Coalition began to form right around
the time Osgood made his 2002 comeback. Comprised of members from
the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, the Surfrider Foundation, Audobon
Society, Sierra Club, the League of Women’s Voters, and Citizens
Planning Association, the coalition was uniquely committed to
protecting the Naples area — specifically the coastal mesa.

“This whole process is unique. The Naples town site is
incredibly unique; the county policies associated with it are
unique. Pretty much everything about it is unique and difficult,”
explained Tom Figg, the county planner in charge of the Naples
project. In the four years since the second MOU was agreed upon,
the plan has mutated to the point that the EIR is investigating the
impacts of two entirely separate Osgood proposals, known as the
original plan and “Alternative I.”

Alternative I, conceived by Osgood with help from his consultant
Mark Lloyd, merged his vision for Naples with the estate planning
desires of his western neighbors, the Schulte family and its 2,769
acre Dos Pueblos Ranch. The new plan called for a complicated
shell-game swap of land and development rights that would result in
14 of Osgood’s proposed homes being moved inland to a less visible
200-acre portion of Dos Pueblos. Additionally, the Schultes would
put about 2,300 acres of their ranch into a conservation easement
to be held by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, forever
preserving the historic avocado and cherimoya farming traditions of
the ranch, as well as a vast majority of the DP watershed. In
return, the Schulte heirs would receive 11 lots north of the
freeway and six on the coastal side. All told, the new plan would
result in 72 rural estate residences, a generous agricultural
conservation easement, public access and parking for the beach, an
equestrian center, employee housing, and a series of hiking and
horse riding trails for the entire Naples area — a package deal
that both landowners and their consultant feel confident will win
the eventual support of the county supervisors. Lloyd, who has
played a role in helping nail down land deals throughout much of
eastern Gaviota, said of Alternative I: “Honestly, I think there’s
too much development proposed at Naples, but given all the
circumstances I think this deal is as good as it gets.”

Not so fast, say members of the Naples Coalition, who consider
Osgood’s first alternative to be headed in the right direction but
still far from perfect. According to Coalition leader and former
Gaviota park ranger Mike Luns­ford, “The Gaviota Coast will become
Malibu if we don’t hold the line now. Alternative I is good, but
[the land] south of the freeway is sacred; you should not be able
to build there.”

At the heart of the opposition argument is Naples reef, an
underwater world teeming with kelp-supported life just a few
hundred feet below both the Naples blufftop and the would-be sites
of 16 mansion-styled homes and their considerable septic systems.
The impact of coastal development on this fragile and essential
ecosystem — measuring 19 nautical miles — is a source of Coalition
horror.

Rather than wring their hands, Coalition members proposed their
own development plan, one that looks remarkably similar to Osgood’s
Alternative I, except that all blufftop construction is consigned
to the Dos Pueblos area. Lunsford is quick to point out that the
Dos Pueblos sites have “magical views” of both the ocean and
mountains and are protected from the rattle and rumble of nearby
Highway 101. The Coalition’s alternative also includes significant
mansion restraint, proposing that residences be kept smaller than
5,000-square-foot — a number more in line with the average size of
Gaviota homes, or 3,000-square-foot.

Brace for Impact In the past month, the
mandated feasibility study of the TDR at Naples was presented to
the County Board of Supervisors, as well as the Santa Barbara City
Council. The $250,000 study — paid for by Osgood — suggested that
transferring development rights from portions of Naples to urban
receiver sites was a feasible solution that would reduce the
project but not to stop it entirely. However, the county
supervisors soundly rejected the idea, insisting it would undermine
community planning; the City of Goleta refused to even entertain
the idea of a coastal/urban rights swap. Ironically, the city
furthest away from Naples was the most receptive. “Tell us more,”
said the Santa Barbara City Council.

The reaction to the study on the county level surprised both
Lunsford and Lloyd. “The county’s reaction actually disappointed
me,” said Lloyd. “They should at least leave the door open to TDR.”
For his part, Osgood recently went on the record before the supes,
offering as much as 36 months grace time for kinks in the TDR
system to be worked out if his project gets final approval.

Meanwhile, the EIR examines a swath of hotly contested land that
also happens to be a Class Four (out of five) environmentally
sensitive region; so, regardless of the legal validity of
antiquated lot lines and land-swap deals made with neighbors,
Osgood’s proposal is anything but a foregone conclusion. According
to county-insider forecasts, the project won’t even come to a vote
by supervisors until late this year. In the meantime, Osgood’s
alternative must run the gauntlet of public opinion. The former
park ranger and the Orange County developer — who call each other
“friend” on the outside — perceived that community response
somewhat differently. Osgood shrugged off backlash against his
plans, saying, “50 people showing up at a meeting because they got
an email the day before isn’t much of a resistance.” Lunsford
remained confident of the Santa Barbara community’s overwhelming
opposition to mansions on the bluff, promising the Coalition would
fight to the end. “Simply put, we will go to court before a house
is built on the bluff.”

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