Although the issues still aren’t clear to many, the Goleta City Council voted on Tuesday night to initiate study of several of the amendments to Goleta’s General Plan proposed by Bacara Spa & Resort. The major issues under scrutiny were beach access location, beach access hours, tsunami planning, and the designation of environmentally sensitive habitat areas (ESHA) on Bacara’s property.
Steve Chase, Goleta’s Director of Planning and Environmental Services, presented the city staff’s recommendations to the Council, including further examination of the general plan amendments to determine feasibility. One exception, though, was for some language related to beach access. Currently, Bacara wishes to build 62 timeshare condominiums where the public access to and parking for Haskell’s Beach are currently located, moving that access to another location on the property. Chase pointed out that as the amendment is currently worded – “without unreasonably diminishing public access” – there may be some leeway pertaining specifically to the word “unreasonably,” so the council voted unanimously to remove the word from the proposed amendment.
Another aspect of the access issue that was touched upon was the hours the beach access and parking lot are open. Sandy Lejeune, a member of the Executive Committee of the Santa Barbara chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and a regular visitor to Haskell’s Beach, has been following the debate for a while, and is concerned that Bacara is attempting to privatize the beach there. “The general plan amendments include changes in language that make it possible to limit access hours,” he said. “I think they’d like to move the public access much farther away from where the whole complex is.” Richard Monk, an attorney representing HTSB, Inc. – which owns Bacara – countered these concerns by saying that the new access would be a shorter walk to the beach, but noted that the current 24-7 access hours pose security problems. David Brown, Bacara’s Director of Safety and Security, said that nighttime instances of underage drinking and graffiti are increasing in frequency.
Neither Bacara nor its detractors have been able to convince the other side of the validity of their stance on ESHAs, and currently, appear to be working at cross purposes. Environmentalists and other community members argue that mitigation of the environmental impacts caused by past development – in the form of vegetation and habitat restoration – was a part of Bacara’s initial permit application, and must be maintained. The proposed condos are reportedly to be placed in the middle of this restoration area, so members of the environmental community do not want to see it destroyed. Monk explained their position to the Council, saying that because the restoration areas were not naturally occurring, they do not constitute an ESHA. He also said that the second, or completion phase of their development plan, was already approved. “Denial of initiation [of general plan amendments] dooms Bacara to remain a partially completed resort,” he said. “This [completion] would be a great economic benefit in these difficult times.”
Public comment was lively at the meeting, but pro-Bacara speakers were notably better represented than those opposed to further development on the property. Aside from Bacara’s legal team, several employees showed up to tout the resort’s benefit to the community, and state their satisfaction with the company as an employer, as well as a couple of members of the Coastal Band of Chumash Indians. “People like myself rely on companies like Bacara to build a life here,” said Blanca Hernandez, a Goleta homeowner and Bacara’s benefits coordinator. Members of the environmental community and opponents of development at Bacara who showed up were surprisingly low in number, with stalwarts Barbara Massey and Margaret Connell appearing, in addition to a couple of Surfrider members and Connie Hannah of the Santa Barbara Chapter of League of Women Voters. “We can congratulate Bacara for providing an excellent public access that was currently unavailable, but it’s important to remember that Haskell’s Beach had public use long before Bacara was there,” said Hannah.
While city councilmember Jonny Walis voted against initiation of most of the amendments being examined, she did support the one about gathering information about tsunami impacts, saying that it is the city’s responsibility to provide this information for Bacara. Furthermore, she said that by investing the City Staff’s time and resources into the initiation process, the amendments would not be able to be removed at a later date due to their momentum. Councilmember Roger Aceves voted cautiously as well, with all of the proposed amendment initiations being supported by councilmembers Jean Blois and Eric Onnen, and by Mayor Michael Bennett. “What bothers me is that we’re not showing the public the entire project-we’re piecemealing this,” said Aceves.