The fate of privately owned but publicly used Hot Springs Canyon in the mountains above Santa Barbara was the subject of another hearing last Wednesday before the Montecito Water District’s board, where the district, Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, and U.S. Forest Service tried to sort out groundwater rights in the face of a tight escrow deadline. Zoned for residential development, the popular hiking area has been a preservation target for the Land Trust over the past year, but the trust has run into hurdles regarding who owns the water running beneath the 462-acre property.
Wednesday’s meeting began with a discussion about a 40-acre section of land called Parcel Two which would be managed by the Water District because it already included a constructed well. (The other 420-plus acres would be controlled by the Forest Service, which confirmed during the hearing that — despite concerns that the land would somehow be turned into a resort or otherwise commercialized — Hot Springs Canyon would be managed for passive recreation and habitat conservation like the rest of the Los Padres National Forest.)
The district expressed concerns about liability over owning Parcel Two, because it included the beginning of the main Hot Springs trail, which is very popular with hikers, and, according to general manager Tom Mosby, would cost less than $6,000 to manage each year. It was suggested that the Montecito Trails Foundation could possibly support the trail’s upkeep, and it was also explained that the trail easements would fall under Santa Barbara County’s jurisdiction, not the Water District’s.
Also floated was the idea that the Montecito Fire Department — which is in better financial shape than the Water District — take over the parcel instead, since that would still allow the water to be tapped in an emergency drought. And if that department wasn’t interested, the district could still transfer ownership to a more suitable public agency so long as it retains rights to the groundwater and access, and control any subsequent usage decisions. Altogether, the district’s boardmembers made it clear on Wednesday that they were not particularly interested in owning the property but were hoping to accommodate the public preservation desires while protecting the district’s future interests in the groundwater rights.
When the meeting was done, the Land Trust’s executive director Michael Feeney was pleased and expressed genuine gratitude toward the district’s board. “The fact that the board stepped up to do the right thing for the community will make it possible for us to preserve this land,” said Feeney. “We are really appreciative of their support and for taking on a large amount of general responsibility so we can close this deal and help protect the rights of the water for the community. It was really great to see so many different components and people work together to make this happen. The devil lies in the details now.”