Raising $6.9 million, the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County is now the proud owner of 21 acres of open space on the Carpinteria Bluffs, a piece of oceanfront land that, over the years, investors have pushed to develop into a destination resort — only to be rebuffed by a conservation-minded community willing to back up sentiment with lots of cash.
In March of last year, the Land Trust entered a $6 million purchase agreement for the acreage — located just to the east of the existing 52-acre Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve — putting down $3 million and financing the balance. Chet Work, the Land Trust’s executive director, said at the time the nonprofit land-protection group would need at least two years to bankroll its ambitious $7.9 million campaign to pay off the property, get going on restoration, and set up an endowment to cover ongoing maintenance. “We gave it two years, and we did it in one,” Work said. “The community has rallied so heavily.”
While nearly $1 million came from local and state grants — around $145,000 from Santa Barbara County’s Coastal Resource Enhancement Fund (CREF), and the rest roughly split between California Coastal Conservancy and the California Natural Resources Agency — approximately 1,400 individual donors stepped up to pitch in, according to Work. The donors ranged from the anonymous elite — some of whom chipped in north of $1 million — to Carpinteria classrooms making $10 pledges, he said. “Kids were bringing in loose change.” Another creative donor laid out a challenge: If the Land Trust could secure a minimum $10 donation from 1,000 individuals, he’d donate $100,000. “We’ve finished paying down our debt on the property,” Work said. “And now we’re going to put the property into a conservation easement and transfer it to the city [of Carpinteria].”
Such an easement will restrict any development of the property — known in environmental circles as Bluffs III — aside from a proper parking lot, restrooms, and improved trails and a bike path, with guardrails along the bluff edge, much like what visitors experience at the nearby Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. Bluffs III will join the nature preserve via trails around the bluff-top business park, and ultimately connect Carpinteria to the Rincon Bike Trail, which runs seaside from Rincon Beach Park to Ventura. That Class I bike path connection would run from Rincon’s upper parking lot to a bridge spanning the Union Pacific railroad, then on up the hill to Bluffs III. Work said talks with Union Pacific have been favorable, and according to Matt Roberts, Carpinteria’s director of parks and recreation, “We expect to deliver [the bike path] by 2020.”
For now, Roberts is working with the Land Trust on the details of the Bluffs III conservation easement before the property transfers to the city, which will take on the responsibility of maintaining the new acreage once initial restoration and trail work is complete. To help out with that, about $1 million from the fundraising campaign has been earmarked as an upkeep endowment. Added Roberts: “It’s amazing that here on the edge of Santa Barbara County we’ve got more coastal open space than just about any other place in Southern California.”
Over the years, the upsides of accessible nature have become even more apparent to landscape artist Arturo Tello, 63, president of Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, which formed in 1996 to purchase and protect what is now the 52-acre nature preserve. “As I get older, I better understand the health aspects of going for walks,” he said. “This [Carpinteria Bluffs] land is good for the soul, but it’s also good for the body. It’s such a great benefit to have this open space. It’s a place where the life force is strong, where nature gets to do its thing.”
According to Bruce Reitherman, the Land Trust’s conservation director, Bluffs III “is home to a facsimile of coastal sage scrub, and we intend to bring in more native plants, and that will increase the diversity. The story here is really about the potential of the place to abundantly support native animals and plants. All this place needs is a little tender, loving care, and it could become wildlife habitat with important regional value.” He added that in addition to the more conspicuous turkey vultures, hawks, and the occasional osprey, the land is well suited for “a large number of important, native songbirds,” plus coyote, woodrats, raccoons, and the long-tailed weasel. Over the years, the property has served as a staging area for paragliders and, circa 1950, was home to the Thunder Bowl racecar and motorcycle dirt track.
Work estimates that the total Carpinteria Bluffs area covers about 150 acres, and “There’s still 30 acres out there that are unprotected [from development],” he said. “And I think the community would endorse its conservation. Are we done? No.”