Credit: Courtesy

The battle over the San Marcos foothills intensified last week when eight people were arrested for blocking two bulldozers leading to land where eight multimillion-dollar homes are slated to be built. This is the latest skirmish in a battle that began 15 years ago.

The owners and developers of 377 acres of  grazing land along State Route 154 agreed in 2005 to preserve a good portion of it to sweeten the prospect of 15 large homes and five lower-priced condominiums. The condos and seven homes are complete. The eight remaining homes being contested are each priced at more than $3 million and situated on grasslands with sweeping coastal views.

In the interim, the Trust for Public Land took over the  200 donated acres, and Channel Islands Restoration (CIR) has planted natives and mowed the turf with sheep. The new homes could affect sensitive plants and animals, especially if herbicides or rodenticides are used. A preliminary appraisal put the value at $5.5 million about two years ago, said Elihu Gevirtz, an ecologist with CIR, but the property’s developer, Chuck Lande, CEO of Chadmar Group of Santa Monica, thought the market value was closer to $16 million. The exchange of information was an informal one, Gevirtz said.

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Since then, Santa Barbara real estate values have gone up, driven in part by wealthy COVID refugees seeking safer places to live. Lande now sets the value at $22 million, though he said he’d accept $18 million. The Save the San Marcos Foothills activists have raised only about $1.4 million to buy the site. Negotiations continued at press deadline, and Marc Chytilo, attorney for the foothills group, said they intended to find a way to preserve the land and raise the money.

The project includes 16 acres as a passive park and hang-glider landing site, county planner Nicole Lieu described. Nearly 100 acres surrounding the development site will remain open space, said Lande. Altogether, 89 percent, or 314 acres, will be preserved or left as open space.

Lande noted, “The current plan was a celebrated model when approved 15 years ago. The major donation of land … and the gift of $250,000 to create the preserve were applauded as generous and a great way to preserve land.” Chadmar spokesperson John Davies asked why, with such a  protest showing up so late in the game, would any landowner ever make a deal like this in the future.

The protesters cited the lack onsite of a Chumash monitor for cultural resources and biological monitors for the nesting or migratory birds as the dozers approached. Lieu explained no work was planned, so no monitors were needed, though they would be present when construction began.

Among the eight arrested were four women, drawing on their Chumash ancestry and singing traditional prayers as they sat in front of the bulldozers. Lande confirmed he’d asked that the charges be dropped, but that decision is up to the District Attorney’s Office.

About 50 activists have remained near the building site, saying they were guarding against a return of the heavy equipment. Last Thursday, a dozer drive said they were scheduled to scrape a three-quarter of a mile, 28-foot-wide swath to begin a construction roadway on March 1. That was postponed, although for how long is undetermined.

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