Mark Lee (left)
Paul Wellman (file)

The Trust for Public Land unveiled plans at Tuesday’s City Council meeting to buy the 15-acre parcel of environmentally challenged, hot-button real estate known as Veronica Meadows ​— ​located near Arroyo Burro Beach alongside Las Positas Road ​— ​and turn it over to the City of Santa Barbara. Proposals to convert what had long been undeveloped brush and trails into an upscale residential subdivision were first introduced by owner Mark Lee in 1999 and quickly evolved into an environmental cause célèbre.

In 2006, the City Council approved Lee’s plans to build 25 homes with an entrance bridge crossing Arroyo Burro Creek near Elings Park. But the Urban Creeks Council and Citizens Planning Association challenged that approval in the courts and won. Because the entrance bridge crossed over a small chunk of undeveloped land previously gifted to the city as parkland, Judge Thomas Anderle ruled Santa Barbara’s charter required the public easement be put to a vote of the people. In November 2012, Lee’s proposal went down to crushing defeat, losing by a margin of two-to-one.

In the past 18 months, Lee and the Trust for Public Land have been hammering out terms and conditions of a deal. The land will be made available to the trust for $4 million, assuming the trust can raise the money within the next nine months. Thus far, the trust has secured a $500,000 grant and has applications worth another $800,000 pending. Assuming the deal is consummated, the land would be transferred to the City of Santa Barbara, which owns six acres of adjoining undeveloped property. The Creeks Division would be responsible for clearing and restoring Arroyo Burro, a major watershed leading to Hendry’s Beach. And already the Public Works Department is actively exploring plans to build a new bike path along a length of the property.

In hindsight, the outcome appears almost preordained, a classic move from the environmental playbook of delay, deny, then buy. But for Eddie Harris, who led the charge for the Urban Creeks Council, the outcome was both satisfying and surprising. “Usually, it’s the developers who wear us out,” he said. “This was an amazing turnabout.” Harris praised the “smart lawyering” that forced the 2012 ballot measure and expressed optimism that the land ​— ​the last major undeveloped parcel abutting a creek in city limits ​— ​can be restored as a meaningful wildlife corridor. Mayor Helene Schneider and councilmembers Bendy White and Cathy Murillo, who led the charge against the project as elected officials, praised the outcome.


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