Developer Michael Keston speaks at Goleta City Council Aug. 18, 2011
Paul Wellman

There weren’t too many surprises at Goleta City Hall on Thursday night, when the public was asked to weigh in on the notion of rezoning the 240-acre Bishop Ranch from farmland to suburbia. As expected, it was standing room only for a time, there were more than 30 speakers, the hearing took more than two hours, and — as has occurred each time there’s any talk of changing the property from its current state of idle open space to something else — a chorus of citizens spoke out against development, wishing instead for the land to be kept as is or turned into a working farm.

“We became a city to protect our ag land and our quality of life,” argued Goleta gadfly Barbara Massey against the thought of homes, just one of dozens advocating against the project. “I urge the City Council to just say no,” exclaimed resident Harry Rouse. “Nip this one in the bud.”

Harry Rouse speaks at Goleta City Council Aug. 18, 2011
Paul Wellman

But, in perhaps the only surprise of the night, those in favor of the project showed up almost in a force that was nearly outnumbered the opponents. These included business owners such as Peter Jordano, affordable housing advocates such as Guisela Esparza of The Duncan Group, and Chamber of Commerce-ites Steve Cushman (Santa Barbara) and Kristen Amyx (Goleta Valley), who all see the development of Bishop Ranch as a solution to the lack of workforce housing currently available in the region. “The project will be providing many people the opportunity for affordable housing,” said Esparza, explaining that many of the tenants she represents have been forced to house their adult children or move in with other families due to housing costs. “There is such a need for affordable housing.”

The hearing’s most lively moment came early on, when the would-be developer Michael Keston, who spoke proudly of developing 35,000 homes throughout 150 communities in four states over the past 40 years, was at the podium. “We build good product and we build good communities and my great joy is to go back afterward and see people living there,” said Keston, who noted that the property was zoned for development from 1955 to 1980. But he soon ran afoul of the three-minute limit for speeches, and requested more time, to which the crowd reacted with hostility. “Cut him off!” said one of the angry mob, to which a frustrated Keston retorted, “Be courteous.” Mayor Margaret Connell was courteous but firm, granting Keston another minute to wrap up his thoughts, and reminding him that he would have a chance to speak at length next month, when the City Council makes a decision on the matter.

Overflow crowd at the Goleta City Council meeting discussing the Bishop Ranch Aug. 18, 2011
Paul Wellman

Other speakers included a butterfly enthusiast, who claimed that the Bishop Ranch does support a wintering site for monarchs; an arborist, who hoped that the city would consider protecting some of the property’s heritage trees; a representative from the Goleta School District, who said that any development of this size would need to build a school as well; a farmer, who claimed that he knew of many people ready and willing to work that exact landscape; and a mix of young and old, whose views ran the gamut from the-next-generation-needs-homes to please-don’t-turn-into-San Bernardino.

Thursday’s public comment session was the second special hearing on the current Bishop Ranch proposal, which is a request for the city to initiate a study to evaluate the impacts of changing the zoning from agricultural to urban or suburban on the property that is bordered by Storke, Los Carneros, Cathedral Oaks, and Highway 101. The first meeting on July 21 was to reveal the findings of a consultant’s examination of the property, which concluded that agriculture was not economically viable due mainly to the high cost of water but that development would also come with its share of problems. (See a report from that meeting here.) Thursday night’s meeting was to accept public comment on the matter, which will be decided on Tuesday, September 20, during the evening City Council session.

Based on questions asked by councilmembers at the end of the session on Thursday, they’re still wanting many more answers than the recent study provided, from whether dry farming would be an option and what infrastructure impacts development would have, to more specifics about water rates and whether there would even be enough water given UCSB’s expected buildout on top of other projected growth. In listening to planning director Steve Chase sum up the situation at the end of the evening, it appeared that the best way to really get those answers might actually be to initiate the study that the Bishop Ranch developers are requesting.

Opponents, whose sentiments appear to represent the majority of Goleta voters, fear that study would be the first step down a path that would eventually lead to development of Bishop Ranch, although the city may find itself slapped with a lawsuit if it does not handle this matter properly. That leaves the councilmembers in a tough spot: Do they risk the political capital but get their questions answered by initiating the study? Or do they shut down the conversation immediately, thereby risking whatever may come legally?

Altogether, Chase wasn’t lying when he explained at the end of the hearing that the proposal to change the zoning would be a massive undertaking for City Hall. “It’s a pretty big deal,” he concluded. So tune in again on September 20 in Goleta City Hall to find out if that deal will go down — or be shut down.


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