The land use tug-of-war that has come to characterize politics in the Goleta Valley took an unexpected turn last week as the Larwin Company, hopeful Bishop Ranch developers, put the brakes on plans to build out the historic parcel. By withdrawing its bid for an amendment to the City of Goleta’s General Plan on Friday, July 11-one that aimed to change the designation of the Bishop property from agricultural to mixed-use residential and commercial-the Larwin Company effectively stopped the clock on the plan to develop the 240-acre ranch with 1,195 housing units, a 90,000-square-foot commercial space, and 80 acres of parks and open space.
Earlier in the day, no doubt factoring into Larwin’s decision, Goleta staff submitted a report recommending that the City Council deny initiation of the proposed amendment. “A project of this scale doesn’t come along every day and requires a great deal of attention and caution,” observed Steve Chase, director of Goleta’s Planning and Environmental Services. Explaining that Bishop accounts for 5 percent of the city’s 5,000 acres as well as 25 percent of the agricultural land on the entire Goleta Valley floor and 70 percent within city limits, Chase and staff recommended denial based partly upon the numbers involved but also because they found the project to be less than impressive as proposed, he said. “With that order of magnitude, if the Bishop Ranch project was to go forward, it would change the complexion of Goleta,” he said, adding, “It’s an ordinary suburban development that isn’t needed at this time.” Also of concern to city staff was the plan’s need to remove an additional 50 acres of orchard land, which exist adjacent to the property but within the bounds of the bordering roadways, Glen Annie and Los Carneros roads.
For his part, Michael Keston, Larwin CEO and part-time South Coast resident, countered that not only were there many errors in the staff’s report, but “we just received the report the Friday before the [City Council] hearing and really didn’t have enough time to correct those issues.” Furthermore, with controversy existing over numerous other facets of the proposed development such as the property’s water availability and resulting agricultural feasibility, there was no shortage of motivations to at least temporarily reevaluate the plan. Speaking earlier this week, Keston summed up the project’s current limbo status by saying, “Right now, we’re not sure what we’re going to do. : We’re going to sit tight and hear from the community.” To that end, he started meeting with members of the public even before last week’s council meeting to discuss what he sees as the project’s benefits, and, perhaps ultimately more importantly, to gauge how the makeup of the next year’s City Council, with possibly two new members, could affect the plan’s future.
Even with Larwin’s call to withdraw its bid, Goleta City Council decided to hear the staff’s report on Tuesday evening and take public testimony. Councilmember Jean Blois made a motion that the proposed amendment initiation not only be removed from the agenda and but also blocked from inclusion in the future, but Goleta’s General Counsel Julie Biggs cautioned that the motion as stated would control the actions of later councils, and thus could not be allowed. Resubmitted, this time simply removing the item from the agenda for the time being, the motion eventually passed unanimously. “I think the staff report hit the main issue of impact, and that is that right now, we don’t need to add the housing inventory,” explained Councilmember Eric Onnen, who later added, “Our General Plan has outlined some 3,000 potential housing units in Goleta. Almost all of them are for higher-density, 20-units-per-acre, multi-family dwellings. For me, one of the aspects of adding housing is the job-housing imbalance. We need to create housing that workers can and want to buy.”