What appeared to be a relatively benign agenda item at the Santa Barbara County supervisors’ February 26 meeting quickly developed into an old-fashioned North County versus South County shoving match, complete with catty backtalk, soap-box chest thumps, and healthy doses of hypocrisy-and that may be only the beginning.
Thanks to a recent revitalization of the federally funded Coastal Impact Assistance Program, which allots offshore oil and gas royalties to sea-adjacent states, the county is looking at about $3.5 million in extra cash spread out over the next four years that, by order of law, must be spent on coastal restoration, preservation, or recreation projects. The Board of Supervisors, in order to get the ball rolling in receiving this cash, had to create a tiered list of potential recipient programs at this Tuesday’s hearing. When South County’s Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf balked at county staff’s classification of Gaviota as a second-tier priority, fur began to fly. In the end, not only did staff recommendations win out in a 3-2 vote, but 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone voted against a motion that would have provided a windfall of cash for his coastal constituents. Also, the oversight of all Gaviota Coastal Acquisitions-the county’s terminology for coastal conservation easements that they help facilitate-was taken away from the Planning and Development department and given solely to County CEO Mike Brown.
Speaking after the hearing, Environmental Defense Center attorney Nathan Alley, who had urged supervisors to reprioritize the Gaviota issue, lamented, “I certainly wasn’t expecting things to turn out that way : I think there is a real divide at the board right now between what people are saying and what they are actually doing.”
As proposed by staff, and based upon a set of criteria that emphasizes “projects and activities for the conservation, protection, and restoration of coastal areas,” the programs selected for top priority are restoration at Goleta Beach and the Santa Ynez River; improved public access at Point Sal Beach near Guadalupe; septic tank upgrades at Jalama Beach County Park; bathrooms, off-street parking, and better beach access at Santa Claus Lane; and education outreach programs geared toward countywide water quality and urban runoff.
Though all parties involved agreed each project deserved financial support, Wolf lobbied for giving higher priority to Gaviota Coastal Acquisitions and lower priority to the outreach efforts and Point Sal and Santa Clause Lane projects. Taking into account the county’s February 5 decision to move forward with a Transfer of Development Rights ordinance (TDR)-a process that could potentially help preserve the paradisiacal Gaviota property popularly known as Naples-Wolf referenced the specific language of the Fed’s funding criteria before adding, “Here is a perfect opportunity to put some money behind what we’ve been talking about.” North County supervisors Joni Gray, Joe Centeno and Brooks Firestone, however, bristled at the idea. While Centeno simply wanted to keep the TDR hot potato off-limits until a later date, Gray was much more pointedly agitated, countering “So now we only get $367,000 in the North? Thank you!” Gray then added, “I’m sorry. The Gaviota Coast is not more important.”
For his part, Firestone-whose 3rd District stood to gain about $2 million in coastal resources money under Wolf’s proposal and who also criticized the TDR program for lacking funding-voted against the reclassification, favoring what he called the “better, well-thought-out plans” for Point Sal and Santa Claus Lane. Ironically, Carbajal, whose 1st District is home to Santa Claus Lane, preferred Wolf’s idea, saying, “I don’t want to do this parochially. I want to spend this money in a way that is best for the entire county.”
The supervisors will no doubt revisit this debate and much more when they hold a hearing in coming months, proposed by Centeno to be an “uncluttered ” and single-minded examination of how the county could protect Gaviota