One protester chained himself to the gate leading into the property destined for homes adjacent to the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, where dozens of people gathered Thursday morning to block the bulldozers there to scrape a roadway. Some of the Sheriff’s deputies and protesters had been there since Wednesday. | Credit: Courtesy

Deputies with the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office arrested eight people early Thursday morning for blocking bulldozers on land slated for a high-end housing development on the West Mesa of the San Marcos Foothills. 

Protesters with Save the San Marcos Foothills claim the dozer work — to clear a 28-foot-wide path for three-quarters of a mile — would disturb the adjacent San Marcos Foothills Preserve, said to be one of the most biologically rich native grasslands on the South Coast. In addition, protesters objected that there were no Chumash monitors on the site to ensure no burial sites were disturbed. Furthermore, they noted it’s nesting season for birds such as the meadowlark and that the preliminary construction work would interfere. 

Of the eight arrested, four were Chumash women who had sat down in front of the bulldozers at 5 a.m. Another protester had chained himself to a nearby fence. 

As of 11 a.m., back-up had arrived from the California Highway Patrol and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, which placed a blockade at the bridge across the 101 to keep other protesters from joining the two dozen still on the property. As long as they keep walking in circles, they are not at risk of being arrested, they were apparently told.

Law enforcement officials are seeking to broker some negotiated agreement with the protesters and owners of the property, the Chadmar Group, a Santa Monica–based real estate development company. Chadmar had hoped to neutralize opposition by donating roughly 90 percent of the 377 acres of land they purchased several years ago from a prior developer and setting it aside for a natural preserve. But the natural charms of the San Marcos Foothills have engendered passionate loyalties for some dedicated environmentalists who have been fighting to save all of the property from development. 

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The battle over the San Marcos Foothills has been quietly raging for more than 20 years now. Environmentalists have sought to raise $5.5 million for the property. To date, they have reportedly raised $1.3 million. 

There is considerable dispute, however, about the $5.5 million figure now being bandied about. John Davies, PR consultant and political strategist for the developer, accused Marc Chytilo, attorney for Save San Marcos Foothills, of spreading misleading information. Davies said the land was worth no less than $18 million and that the developer had never agreed to the $5.5 million price tag. Chytilo said he never said the developers had, adding that the $5.5 million was based on an assessment — not an actual appraisal — of the land’s value in 2019 conducted by the Channel Islands Restoration. Chytilo said he has made several offers to the developers, but they have never responded to any of them.

Davies — a longtime political consultant — angrily denounced today’s protests, noting that Chadmar had agreed to dedicate 90 percent of the property to open space. If protests like this week’s are the pay-off, he questioned, why would other developers follow suit?

Some protesters have expressed concern that they did not come equipped in terms of food and drink for the long haul and are hoping that law enforcement officials will allow their supporters to keep them equipped with adequate nourishment. 

Chadmar intends to build eight luxury homes initially and, after that, another 12 homes. 

Some protesters showed up on-site last night, and many greeted the dawn determined to block the initial earth scraping needed for development to ensue. Bulldozer operators are on-site, as well, but are making no move to get past the protesters. Some protestors have objected that the four Chumash women were arrested with more force than was necessary, but otherwise, the event has been peaceful.

[Update: February 25, 2021: 4:36 p.m.] After being released from jail, Scott Orlosky called the Independent about the morning’s events and also those of Wednesday. Orlosky was present on February 24 with other members of the effort to save the property from development. He was watching two surveyors setting out stakes when the first bulldozer came up the road around 1 p.m. He and a woman with a dog on a leash, stood at the metal gate with their backs to the road. He could hear the dozer’s bucket hit the ground behind him, a loud noise that scared the dog. The standoff ended when the driver took the dozer back down the road.

Organizers rallied more support, which went into the overnight hours. On Thursday morning, Orlosky, an engineer whose career has involved heavy equipment and automation, returned and watched as the developer’s representative sawed through the wooden fence. The man chained to the metal gate had somehow hidden his hands, Orlosky said, and even the fire department, who had been called, could not figure out how to unbolt him so the gate could be opened.

The crowd was careful not to trespass onto the developer’s private property, Orlosky said, and several Chumash women were standing and singing, when the bulldozer arrived this morning. Orlosky said he was caught between the fence, the crowd, the dozer, and the police, so he attempted to speak with the officer to his right. She said it was not legal for him to be there because she’d already told him to move and he hadn’t. The next thing he knew, he was being cuffed and led to a Sheriff’s van, where three Chumash women were already inside.

Eight people were arrested and moved to the County Jail, and one person received a citation, Sheriff’s spokesperson Raquel Zick said. All were released this afternoon on their promise to appear in court.

Editor’s Note: Updates within the story were made at 12:40 p.m. to the headline and story to note that eight protesters were arrested, as well as to note a dispute over the $5.5 million valuation of the property.

Correction: The spelling of Scott Orlosky’s name has been corrected.

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