Bishop Ranch Seeks Zoning Change

Largest Undeveloped Property in Goleta Gets Important Review at City Council on Tuesday

The Bishop Ranch from Cathedral Oaks Road
Margaret Connell

UPDATE: Late in the afternoon on Friday, July 11, Larwin Company withdrew its application for a general plan amendment that would allow development of the Bishop Ranch property. The company did not give a reason. The City Council may still choose to consider the amendment, and the application could return at a later date.

The day has finally arrived. On Tuesday evening, July 15, the Bishop Ranch proposal will be before the Goleta City Council. The Larwin Development Company, based in Encino, is asking the council to change the 240-acre ranch’s current agricultural zoning into a special designation that would allow for a 1,200-unit housing development between Glen Annie and Los Carneros roads.

Staff is recommending that the council deny the developer’s request. They state that there is sufficient land zoned already in the General Plan to meet future affordable housing objectives. They refute the developer’s contention that this is an infill project, since Bishop Ranch lies in an agricultural belt and is bordered by productive orchards on three sides. Under state code, an infill site must be bordered by a significant amount of urban uses. Its development “would constitute an expansive agricultural land conversion” that would reshape the city.

Map of Bishop Ranch
Martha Sadler

The soils onsite are types that can support orchard crops, pasture, and range land. More and more people value the availability of fresh, locally grown produce, and appreciate that it reduces long distance trucking and air pollution. The one limiting factor for renewing agricultural production on this site may be water. Apparently, the Bishop Ranch Company held the right to 100 acre-feet/year in 1952, but in 1995 these rights were sold to serve the Camino Real Marketplace. I have noted in earlier articles, the Goleta Water District 2005 Urban Water Use Plan only covered projects already recognized in existing community plans. The Bishop Ranch development was not included since it was designated for agriculture in the Goleta General Plan. The shortage of water could be an issue for either agriculture or development.

The policy decision for Goleta’s City Council is whether an agricultural parcel should be considered for development just because the owners have chosen not to farm it.

Last February, the council majority set a precedent when, against the recommendation of staff, it voted to initiate a General Plan amendment to change the agricultural designation of the Shelby parcel – 14 acres north of Cathedral Oaks Road – from agriculture to single family and design residential uses. But the Bishop Ranch proposal is larger by many orders of magnitude and would have infinitely more profound impacts on the surrounding areas. It could well trigger the need for a new environmental impact report for the whole General Plan.

Mayor Michael Bennett (left) with Michael Keston, CEO of Larwin Company, the developer of Bishop Ranch
Margaret Connell

Some have argued that Bishop Ranch should be evaluated for residential development to ease the housing shortage. The response by many is that all the plans shown by Bishop Ranch so far project a majority of market rate housing that could be afforded only by households making two to four times the $65,000 median household income of current Goleta residents. The burdens of Bishop Ranch development would be on Goletans, but its housing would mostly be for people from other cities and states, in no way easing the housing shortage for current Goleta residents.

Meanwhile the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce argues that the time has come to initiate this project “so that there can be environmental studies, impact reports, community dialogue, and policy discussion on the best uses of this property for our city’s future.” However, this advocacy is based on the assumption that development of some kind on Bishop Ranch would be acceptable and should be evaluated. The policy decision for Goleta’s City Council is whether an agricultural parcel should be considered for development just because the owners have chosen not to farm it.

Whatever the decision Tuesday night, this project is not going to go away. Michael Keston, the head of the Larwin Company, has invested years of time and money courting the community and the city to try to move it forward. He also has a lawsuit pending against the city and if he is denied, he can be expected to sue.

Whether you are for or against the development of this expansive parcel in the middle of Goleta, you should attend this meeting and let the council know where you stand.


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