Santa Ynez Plan Gets Okay

Neverland Neighbors Take Stand for Valley's Future

<strong>IT'S BAD, YOU KNOW IT:</strong> A crowd of Michael Jackson mourners clusters at the Neverland Ranch on July 3. To some, the transformation of Jackson's former Los Olivos estate into a Graceland-like tourist attraction would threaten the future of the Santa
Ynez Valley.
Paul Wellman

The Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan has been a decade in the making. It wasn’t easy figuring out how to prevent the area from losing its rural character while also providing for urban uses such as housing, commerce, schools, and recreation. Mind-numbingly detailed, the land-use plan is the basis for solving several pressing issues-the impact of the winery boom, the daily dangers of driving Highway 246, and a painful lack of low-income housing. Presenting a new challenge is the fate of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch.

Neighbors of the late pop star have formed a group called Never! to oppose any tourist-related development at the 2,700-acre site. The community plan could give them the ammunition they need; for instance, a review of Los Olivos’ infrastructure reveals it has no sewer system and is located miles from a fire station. Last week, the County Planning Commission approved the plan, along with an Environmental Impact Report. The whole package will be heard by the Board of Supervisors in the fall.

“I think the plan we are forwarding to the board reflects a broad public interest,” said 3rd District Commissioner Marell Brooks. “It reflects good land-use policy with some compromises.”

Those compromises involve property owners who oppose the plan’s downzoning policy, which decreases allowable building density. For instance, a parcel zoned for one house per five acres will be downzoned to allow one house per 40 acres. A handful of these landowners, accompanied by their attorneys, were present at the July 15 Planning Commission hearing. After arguing in vain for his family’s subdivision proposal, landowner Robert Lindemann threatened to “litigate to protect our interests.”

Covering 45,000 acres and 3,900 parcels, the Community Plan contains so much more than the downzone provision. It encourages housing to be built as second units spread throughout the valley, as in-fill projects in already urbanized zones, and as employee housing provided by larger farming operations.

Commercial zoning will be changed so as to discourage gas stations, automobile sales lots, and public storage facilities-uses considered inconsistent with a small-town feel. Other sections of the plan deal with wastewater, trash disposal, water supply, hiking trails, flooding, and archeological resources.

While a tension exists between people who believe in absolute development rights and others who want to limit growth, most valley residents agree something needs to be done about traffic congestion and circulation. Service workers must commute in from Lompoc, which offers more affordable housing, and people with homes in the valley commute to jobs in Santa Barbara.

“Traffic spills over into the residential periphery. It’s a widely shared concern in the community.”

Solvang resident C.J. Jackson is a former county planning commissioner whose family owns the Alisal Ranch. Jackson said Highway 246 can be nightmarish for residents just trying to go to the post office. “I feel the burden five times a day,” he said, referring to rush hour periods and times when the high school lets out. People end up trying to avoid 246. “Traffic spills over into the residential periphery. It’s a widely shared concern in the community.”

Agreeing with Jackson about traffic is Lansing Duncan, also a former county planning commissioner. The two men are at odds about growth, but both are hoping the Community Plan will ease traffic dangers. Duncan is especially concerned about residents trying to cross Highway 154 at various junctures. “There are people wine-tasting and trucks with trailers. You might even come across a pack of bicyclists,” Duncan said. “There are different conflicts, some are moving at high speed, others are slow.”

Jackson and Duncan also agree that Neverland Ranch should remain an agricultural operation-even with its large residence-and not become a tourist attraction now that Michael Jackson has died. Duncan said he is hearing “doublespeak” from the current owner as to the property’s final disposition. It was this uncertainty about the ranch that lead to the formation of Never! Bob Field, former chair of the Valley Planning Advisory Committee, is leading the charge for the group.

Duncan supports the Never! cause. He pointed to the constrained road leading to Neverland, the lack of sewer treatment services, and the ranch’s remoteness as huge factors. “Neverland was a fantasy. It was for those who refused to grow up,” Duncan said. “But those of us who have grown up, we know we have to deal with reality.”

The valley’s namesake, Santa Ines, is remembered for her purity. Maintaining the area’s rural purity is driving this planning effort that started with the Valley Blueprint process in 1998. County planners want the Board of Supervisors to finalize the plan before the winter holidays.


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