In an amazing feat of energy, outreach, and no small amount of grace, ownership of 100 acres of grassland next to the San Marcos Foothills Preserve went into nonprofit hands this week. Given only 90 short days to raise $18 million, the dream to conserve the land conceived by Dani Lynch, Samantha Eddy, Julia Laraway, and Nancy Tubiolo — and supported by members of the Chumash tribes, high school and college students, and what’s come to be a nexus of Santa Barbara environmentalism and philanthropy — succeeded in safely passing escrow on the west mesa to Channel Islands Restoration, which has been managing the existing preserve, and the Allemall Foundation, which gave $3.6 million to the campaign.
Chuck Lande, whose development company had permits to build eight homes on the site but agreed to sell the land, said, “We are impressed by this effort to raise the funds, and we look forward to the expansion of the preserve,” on Tuesday, as the funds raised by the Foothills Forever campaign passed the $18 million mark with just days to go before the final June 9 deadline. He noted the original owners had donated nearly 90 percent of their San Marcos foothills property to form the existing 200-acre preserve.
“Now we all stand side-by-side with every person who gave one dollar to a million dollars,” said Lande. He’d been open to selling it for the preserve since 2019, he said, and was willing to agree to a price that was 25 percent or so below value, wanting to honor the price given years ago. “Clearly the ownership has been dedicated to being wise and good stewards of the land,” he complimented the new owners.
In total, the Foothills Forever fund raised the money through more than 5,500 individual donors, including four who gave nearly $7 million anonymously. The county has included $2 million toward the fund from cannabis taxes in this year’s budget talks.
“I have gratitude in every cell of me,” said organizer Julia Laraway. She, Lynch, Eddy, and Tubiolo were introduced by Channel Islands Restorations’ director, Ken Owen, last fall, and since then one of them has been on site every weekend talking with people or giving tours. They’d made an effort to get people to visit the site to understand what was at stake, “and the minute they go up there,” Laraway said, “they’d say, ‘of course.'”
The fevered fundraising thus far buys the land, 101 acres of rolling hills — formerly grazing for cattle, now crisscrossed with footpaths and dirt roads, and home to white-tailed kites, meadowlarks, burrowing owls, bobcats, red-legged frogs, and other creatures seldom seen — next to the existing preserve for a total of 300 contiguous acres for wildlife and native grasses. It’s a cultural site for the Chumash, who still come for ceremonies at the wide-open space and fiercely defended the gates when bulldozers rolled up in February to cut a construction road. Not to mention the fact that it’s a firebreak between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the western edge of the City of Santa Barbara.
To meet two close deadlines on March 24 and April 13, a $2 million loan from Montecito Bank & Trust was placed in escrow for the land, and then $3.6 million came from the Allemall Foundation, on a two-year, zero-interest loan, each secured right before the deadlines.
“It was absurd,” said Marc Chytilo, attorney for the foothills group. “A campaign like this normally takes two years.” He said the bank had gone above and beyond in making a loan of that magnitude on the strength of a guarantee from a private guarantor, who wished to remain anonymous. Sheer serendipity connected one of the foothill organizers to the Allemall Foundation during a birthday party in Santa Ynez, Chytilo related. Allemall has revolving loans for conservation ventures, and one in Northern California had just paid back $1.8 million, to which the foundation’s family added another $1.8 million for the foothills.
“The whole thing has been a real high-wire act,” Chytilo said, with donations coming up against time, even after Lande extended the final deadline from June 1 to June 9. “Sure enough, one anonymous benefactor came up and made the $5 million gift that pushed us up to $16 million, and we needed a week to finish fundraising,” which crossed the tape on Monday.
Given the realities of the financing, the last 90 days has turned into Phase 1 of the campaign to purchase the land. Phase 2 intends to raise about $2 million to retire the Allemall debt, pay costs, and fill out an endowment to maintain the preserve. The $2 million from the county’s cannabis coffers will go to retire the Montecito Bank & Trust loan, Chytilo said.
“There’s a lot we have to do for Phase 2, but we were successful in raising the funds in what seemed like an impossible amount of time,” said organizer Dani Lynch. “It still hasn’t hit me yet,” she added, laughing. “The community support was overwhelming, more than anyone had ever seen, and that’s what’s so incredible.” She credited the “power of the land” with drawing in more than 10,000 people to sign petitions, volunteer, follow the campaign on Instagram or via newsletter, as well as donate.
“It was so symbolic,” Lynch said of this morning’s escrow announcement. “They unlocked the gate, and Ernestine was there” — Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto is the daughter of the last native Chumash speaker — “and Marianne and her girls walked the land first, and we all followed.” Marianne Parra is a Chumash descendant who volunteered on the campaign. “It’s a testament that anything is possible, especially for young people; they can do anything if they’re passionate about something,” Lynch affirmed.
The last anonymous donor, the foundation of a Santa Barbara businesswoman that gave $5 million in late May, owns the naming rights for the new preserve, but she prefers a name that will fit the land, rather than her own, Chytilo said. “The donor was really, really excited to make this happen. She really wanted to honor the fact that there were 5,000 people in the community who spoke with their wallets and donated what they could to this campaign. That reflects how important this was.”