In a surprise move, based on a ballot measure from the water wars of the 1980s, the Goleta Water District and City of Goleta are blocking plans for housing on one of the last remaining pieces of historic farmland in the city – at least until the drought is over.
The Shelby project, as it is called, is a proposal for 60 homes on the north side of Cathedral Oaks Road, just west of the Glen Annie Golf Course and miles of avocado and lemon orchards. It was first proposed in 2005.
Because it would require a rezone from agricultural to residential use, the Shelby project has been a “line in the sand” for conservationists trying to save farmland from urbanization in the fast-growing valley. They view Cathedral Oaks as the boundary of a green buffer against sprawl.
Glynne Couvillion of the Shelby Family Trust, in turn, points to the golf course and housing tracts near his 14-acre property as proof that no such buffer exists. The family gave up on farming 20 years ago, having replaced portions of their avocado orchards three times. They optimistically named it Resurrection Ranch, but the trees died.
Both sides were preparing to hash it out at public hearings this summer. The final environmental report for the project was expected to be released by the City of Goleta this month.
But now everything is up in the air. In an April 26 letter, the district told the city that under Measure J, a ballot initiative approved by district customers in 1988, the agricultural water credit on the Shelby property cannot be exchanged for residential water service. The city then suspended its review of the project.
That leaves Couvillion, an 82-year-old retired eye surgeon and Montecito resident, with two options: either return to farming or spend more than $875,000 to buy new water. He would have to wait for any new supply – how long is anyone’s guess. During the drought emergency, the district has declared a ban on new hookups.
Couvillion is not sure what to do now, having spent $1.5 million drawing up plans for housing. Would greenhouses or nurseries succeed where avocados failed? he wonders. Should he try to buy new water for housing when the drought is over?
“I don’t know if I have any choice,” Couvillion said. “This is so out of the blue. I am extremely disappointed. I feel we’ve contributed a lot to the community. We did agriculture for years, only to be disappointed in the soil conditions. We want to build modest-sized homes for local families.”
Jennifer Carman, City of Goleta director of planning and environmental review, said last week (OF MAY 9) that in consultation with Couvillion, the city had suspended review of the Shelby project “until the applicant presents an approach to address the water concern.”
“At this time, based on the letter provided from GWD, the project does not have water, whether through the historic agricultural use or a preliminary water service determination,” Carman e-mailed in response to questions. “The City will not consider the project until the availability of water is demonstrated through environmental documentation and findings for the project.”
Steve Ferry, a member of the Santa Barbara Audubon Society and a spokesman for the Shelby Foothills Coalition hailed the suspension of the project as good news.
“Extending urban sprawl into the Goleta foothills is not a good idea,” he said. “However, there are many questions yet to be answered at the Goleta Water District and the City of Goleta, so we don’t know the whole story yet.”
Ferry said the coalition, which was formed only four weeks ago, would not disband. Besides Audubon, it includes The Goodland Coalition, League of Women Voters, Citizens Planning Association, Santa Barbara County Action Network and Santa Barbara Urban Creeks Council.
The Shelby project is not subject to a 2012 voter initiative that requires a vote of the people before farmland in Goleta can be rezoned for housing.
“The developer should withdraw this application,” Ferry said. “A project must have a water source before it can proceed.”
Couvillion bought the property in 1978 as a retirement investment when it was still zoned for residential use. The land was rezoned for agriculture in 1982, and Couvillion is requesting a rezone back to residential use, a change that would require an amendment to the city’s general plan. The Shelby property was placed inside city limits in 2002, when Goleta became a city.
Up until a few weeks ago, Couvillion thought his project was guaranteed a water entitlement, based on its history as an avocado ranch. In a November, 2014 letter, the district had assured him that Shelby’s historic water credit “is available for service to the current proposed project.”
But in its recent letter to the city, the district said it had never received a water service application for the Shelby project.
“While the District has provided the applicant with general pre-1997 water use history on the parcel, the District has not reviewed any proposed project,” the letter said.
Measure J was never incorporated into the district’s water code, but it is still in effect, district officials said. Dave Matson, the assistant general manager, said the measure came up in response to a question from the city regarding Shelby’s historic agricultural water credit.
“The District does not perform substantial research until we have received a formal application …” Matson e-mailed in response to questions. Mark Lloyd, a consultant for Couvillion, said it would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in district fees and water system engineering plans to submit such an application, a risk that Couvillion was not willing to take with city approval still pending.
“We can’t tell you when we may be able to bring this project forward,” Lloyd said.
Measure J was approved during the first moratorium on new water connections in the Goleta Valley, from 1972 to 1996, before the arrival of state aqueduct water to the South Coast.
Running short on supply, the district offered to assign farmers historic water credit that could be exchanged for residential water service, so long as they agreed to reduce their water use overall. But the offer had unintended consequences. Some landowners began overwatering their crops and even vacant land in order to drive up their credit.
In response, the voters approved Measure J, which states, “It is not in the best interests of this District to allow large agricultural parcels served by District meters to be converted to residential, commercial or industrial use.”
Today, the district serves water to 4,000 acres under agricultural production in the Goleta Valley and a portion of the Gaviota Coast.
And on May 25, the district’s administrative committee will consider recommending that Measure J be written into the district’s water code, 28 years after it was approved.