Being situated on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara County has debated matters of coastal access time and time again. North County residents, for example, recently negotiated with Vandenberg officials a deal for once again granting access to Point Sal. In the South County, the owners of private property frequently dictate access. With the exception of a handful of public beaches owned by the City and County, relatively few access spots exist on the entire expanse of Santa Barbara County’s coastline. For this reason, coastal access is a hot issue in the race for the soon to be open 3rd District Supervisor seat.
The most recent access issue to pop up was the limiting of access hours at Bacara Spa & Resort, where the entrance to Haskell’s Beach-a longtime favorite amongst Goletans-is located. Bacara had erected a sign at the entrance to the beach-next to the parking lot that was built as part of the hotel’s development plan-stating that the beach was open from sunrise to sunset. “[Bacara] doesn’t think that it’s safe to keep it open at night,” said John Davies, Bacara’s public affairs representative, “But they are keeping it open 24-7 now since they’ve been asked [by the Coastal Commission]. [Bacara] doesn’t mark spots for beach chairs or cabanas or anything-it’s truly a public beach.” Others, such as Mark Massara, a land use attorney representing the Sierra Club, said he sees the sign as an encroachment upon public access. “This is part of a deliberate, calculated process by them to get rid of what they think of as the riffraff,” he said.
Two items were slated as agenda items at this week’s Coastal Commission hearing – a violation of a cease and desist order for a permit related to the access path and a violation for unpermitted development – were postponed. Written with vague wording, neither agenda item had a link to a staff report on the Coastal Commission’s website. According to Coastal Commission staff, the matter was negotiated between the Coastal Commission and Bacara, so they simply removed it from the hearing. “We like to settle things before it goes to hearing,” said Erin Haley, the Commission’s statewide enforcement agent. Massara voiced a need for the public to stay informed of the Commission’s decision-making process. “We need to know what staff is agreeing to,” he said. “I don’t like these secret deals.”
While the City of Goleta is directly responsible for the area in which Bacara is located, its proximity to the Gaviota Coast makes it a County concern as well. Since Brooks Firestone will be vacating his seat as 3rd District Supervisor after this year, five candidates are vying for the seat, all weighing in on the issues of beach access and coastal development. Known as the “swing” district, its constituency includes a wide demographic range, from the ranchers of the Santa Ynez Valley to the somewhat more liberal Isla Vistans to the middle-of-the-road suburbanites in between. While each candidate has a reputation for one disposition or another, they preach uniformly of their desire to preserve Santa Barbara County’s rural coastline. The proposed construction of 54 to 72 luxury homes on the Gaviota Coast at Naples has been a contentious issue, eliciting much public outcry.
Dave Smyser, considered by many to be a pro-growth candidate, defended his record as a County Planning Commissioner. “I encourage people to check my voting record,” he said. “You can see how pro-growth I was. You will not see a pattern of pro-growth in my voting record.” Smyser also touted his belief in the public process, claiming that he is responsive to the public process.
Although she supports access and coastal preservation, Victoria Pointer takes a position that some development on the Gaviota Coast is better than a lot of development. “[Matt Osgood] has a right to a subdivision [at Naples],” she said. “He could really take this to the max and make a much bigger impact than what is proposed. What he’s offering at this point is a good plan. It creates access in perpetuity and preserves agricultural land.”
Doreen Farr expressed concern that future development at Bacara may push Goleta’s current urban limit line further west, and possibly move the beach access to an inconvenient location. “It’s not just a line on a map,” she said, “you want as easy an access point for the public as possible. We just don’t want to lose any more access points on the coast. Speaking as a candidate, clearly the Bacara is looking out for their interests, but I want to look out for the interests of the residents of the third district and the County as a whole.”
Dr. David Bearman, a longtime activist in Isla Vista and Goleta, was unabashedly supportive of coastal conservation. “The main role the county would have is to lead the charge at the coastal commission,” he said. “Haskell’s Beach is not just used by the city of Goleta it’s used by everyone on the South Coast. It’s absurd and inappropriate to let out of town interests destroy [Haskell’s Beach access].”
Steve Pappas-who is also running for the 3rd District Supervisor spot-was unavailable for comment.