Faced with a lawsuit from the county that aims to stop its upcoming Bike Festival, the Elings Park Foundation hosted a demonstration Thursday afternoon, May 27, on the steps of the County Administration Building. There, around 100 bikers — a few clad in racing gear but nearly all straddling their rides — listened to park representatives take the supervisors to task for wanting to shut down the annual mountain bike racing event, set to take place this year on June 5-6. Supporters argued that the race, which has gone on for the last five years, is run properly and smoothly, and officials are cracking down for no good reason. The park has vowed to fight the lawsuit in court.
From the county’s perspective, however, the yearly event violates a long-standing contract between the county and the park that restricts use of the 130-acre swath of South Elings Park to specific activities that don’t include large-scale biking events on the dirt trails. While officials may have turned a blind eye to the two-wheeled bombers for the last few years, said county spokesperson William Boyer, complaints generated by the 2009 event about noise and traffic forced the county to dispute the true legality of Bike Fest. “When we look at code enforcement kinds of things,” said Boyer, “we look at complaints and how the event has grown.”
Elings Park Board President Michael Fauver began his address to the crowd on Thursday by stating he and others were caught off guard by the lawsuit, served last Friday, May 21. “We find ourselves in a very strange situation today … The County’s lawsuit alleges that we are not using the land Elings Park occupies as we promised to,” he said. “When it comes to the Bicycle Festival, this simply isn’t true.” As far as Fauver and his associates are concerned, all previous installments of the event have “been held successfully,” and the park has “been running the Bicycle Festival for five years without any complaint from the County.” Fauver also attacked the supervisors for waiting so long to launch litigation, saying that they’ve known about the 2010 Festival since last July and yet waited until a week before the race to file the lawsuit.
Fauver went on to stress that Elings Park, in addition to operating as a self-sustaining nonprofit without any taxpayer support, fulfills a critical role in the community, providing facilities to thousands of locals looking good old fashioned recreation and fresh air. And Bike Fest, he said — which hosts around 500 people each year — “draws youngsters and their families into a wholesome outdoor activity at a time when obesity is a national problem.” One hundred percent of the event’s revenue, he also pointed out, goes right back into the park and pays for trail maintenance. If the county is successful in its lawsuit, which aims to enact a temporary restraining order on the event, Fauver asserted, “what it will have accomplished is ruining the plans of hundreds of families, damaging Elings Park, shutting down a healthy outdoors event, and spending a lot of our money … It doesn’t make any sense at all to us.”
Fauver also made it a point to criticize the county for hiring an outside law firm to handle the case. In an email sent to The Independent on Wednesday by a Ventura-based marketing agency, Fauver is quoted as saying, “It just seems unconscionable that on almost the same day that the County released a budget providing for significant program cuts, and at the same time they were asking County employees to agree to salary and benefit cuts, the County hired a large Orange County law firm to come into Santa Barbara and force a local nonprofit to shut down one of its most popular programs.”
Taking a jab at neighbors who filed noise complaints during 2009’s event — the main issue reportedly being a PA system that announced race winners and played music over the course of the two days — Fauver said in his speech, “Elings Park was never intended to be operated solely for the benefit of a small group of immediate neighbors.” Written in the same email mentioned above, his point was reiterated, but in a statement attributed to no one in particular: “Elings Park believes the lawsuit is a cynical manipulation by some of the park’s wealthy neighbors to use public money to advance their private campaign to end mountain and off-road biking in the park.” Park Chairperson Marcia Constance is additionally quoted: “There’s a small, elitist group that wants to keep South Elings Park as their private backyard at a time when we’re trying to expand recreational opportunities for the entire community … It’s hard to believe there isn’t another agenda here.”
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Fauver — as well as park Executive Director Steen Hudson — claimed they’ve attempted to engage in conversations with the county to smooth things over, but to no avail. They say that whatever negotiations they’ve had with officials have gone nowhere, and that lawsuit is simply, as Hudson put it, “a change of opinion, a new political pressure.” Hudson said his office has, many times, tried to get in touch with 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf — whose jurisdiction includes Elings Park — but with little response from her end. “Let’s be responsive and work more effectively,” Hudson said. Fauver said something to similar effect in his public statement: “Until the County expresses a willingness to work with us, we are faced with the reality that they have chosen to pursue litigation instead of communication.” After Fauver finished speaking to the crowd, a number of bikers stormed the fourth floor supervisors’ office, bikes in tow, hoping to speak to the county’s top representatives. It wasn’t immediately clear if any got their wish.
County officials, on the other hand, see the case as fairly cut and dry. According to County Communications Director William Boyer, the county’s problem with Bike Fest revolves around a single issue: A 12-year-old contract between the county and the park that the Foundation reportedly isn’t honoring.
In 1998, the county awarded the Elings Park Foundation $525,000 to help purchase the property, but the grant carried with it a few stipulations. Because the money came from the Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF) — which is capital paid to the county to help offset harmful impacts of offshore oil and gas drilling projects — the county drafted a restrictive covenant that ensured the 130-acre parcel of South Elings Park would be used for “passive recreation” and wildlife habitat. The definition of passive recreation, as read directly from the covenant, “shall include activities such as hiking trails, horseback riding, jogging, hang-gliding, operation of radio-operated airplanes, picnic grounds, park benches, restroom, open public gathering in meadows, a road, and no more than 60 parking spaces cumulatively.” The covenant goes on to say that passive recreation doesn’t include, “activities such as ball fields, tennis courts, outdoor auditoriums, and other activities that require alteration of the natural land.”
The Bike Fest violates a number of these points, said Boyer. Because the trails are cut into the hillside, and include “additional fabricated mounds of dirt to create special jump ramps and other obstacles,” they are not in compliance with the covenant’s language, he argues, and constitute an “alteration of the natural land.” Additionally, the contract states that the portion of property cannot be used for “active recreation,” a category the mountain bike race reportedly falls under. Boyer also said the event’s beer gardens constituted active recreation, and that the number of parked cars in the area during the festival went well beyond the 60-vehicle maximum. If Elings Park’s representatives wanted to the area to be used for active recreation, said Boyer, they needed to get written approval from the County Board of Supervisors. They never did so. When confronted with this piece of information, Hudson seemed surprised, asking why, if the park didn’t have to go that route in past years, should it have to now?
As mentioned earlier, it was grumblings from neighbors that spurred the county into action. “Last year,” wrote Boyer in a press release, “the County began receiving complaints from homeowners who live adjacent to South Elings Park about amplified noise, excessive parking problems and concerns for wildlife at the park.” Boyer also asserted, which was corroborated by staff within Supervisor Wolf’s office, that the county had met with Elings Park representatives a number of times over the course of the past year, but failed to reach any kind of common ground.
According to a chronology of communication (provided by county staff) between the county and the Elings Park Foundation, the two parties first met on August 7, 2009 (not long after the 2009 Bike Fest) when the Foundation was told that active recreation in South Elings Park was not allowed without written approval by the supervisors. The county then purportedly sent a letter on August 20, reiterating the points of the meeting, and asking the Foundation to either “abate the violations by October 30, 2009” or, as an alternative, seek permission from the County Board of Supervisors. On October 30, the county sent another letter to the Foundation restating the violations still existed at the park.
On November 6, the two groups reportedly met again to discuss, and on December 1, 2009, the county sent the Foundation a letter asking it to either remedy the issues or go to the supervisors for approval by February 1, 2010, and to decide one way or another by January 15. After the Foundation asked for two time extensions, which were granted by the county, the Foundation sent a letter to the county on March 15 stating that its lawyers didn’t think the Bike Fest violated the covenant. The Foundation did agree, however, to appear before the board, but asked that County Counsel draft a letter stating the Foundation’s appearance before the board would not be construed as an admission by the Foundation that it was in violation of the covenant. On March 26, the county declined that request and asked for a project description of what the Foundation proposed so it could be presented to the board.
The Foundation, on April 2, retorted that it was not asking the board to approve an amendment to the covenant, and that it intended to proceed with the Bike Fest. It also said that if the county believed a violation existed, staff should place the item on the board’s agenda for a full discussion. After purportedly receiving a request from the county on April 13 asking for a list of uses the Foundation planned at the park during Bike Fest, the Foundation responded on April 30 that 80-100 racers would be in a single race on Saturday, June 5, and 150 racers would be in three races on Sunday, June 6. The Foundation also stated that it “[did] not expect” to exceed parking restrictions or have beer gardens.
Then, on May 14, a county-hired biologist inspected South Elings Park to determine if the race would damage or harm plants and wildlife. His report stated Bike Fest “could prove very disruptive to birds attempting to incubate eggs or brood their young … due to noise, dust, and visual disturbance from racers using the course.” That determination reportedly meant that the festival also violated the clause of the contract that stated South Park needed to feature proper “wildlife habitat” in addition to passive activities. That same day, May 14, the county issued a letter to the Foundation that the event unequivocally violated the covenant. That’s where the chronology ends.
As things stand now, Boyer said the county is not trying to prevent the entire Bike Fest, but wants the whole shebang to be moved to the North Park, away from nesting birds. The race can go on, he said, if: There is no staging of races in South Park, only North Park; on-site parking must be limited to 60 cars; there can be no amplified PA system; no beer gardens or any other distribution of alcohol; and no cutting of new bike paths in South Park. When confronted with the fact that limiting the event to North Park would essentially mean the end of the festival (as nearly all the racing is done on the dirt trails in the South Park area), Boyer merely shrugged.
In response to Fauver’s condemnation of the county for hiring an outside law firm, county staff said that the firm specializes in covenant cases and, because of recent budget cuts, the county counselor’s office is down 6-7 people and simply couldn’t take the assignment.
The case will be reviewed by a judge in the Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Friday morning, May 28, when the county will ask the judge to grant the restraining order. And, according to Hudson, the matter will be settled by next week.