The 'Ellwood Queen,' a 134-year-old lemon-scented gum tree, towers over the Ellwood Cooper ranch, unprotected from potential new owners. Goleta historian Tom Modugno fears. | Credit: Courtesy Tom Modugno / David Gress Photos

The City of Goleta is the kind of place that when sidewalks were planned for Old Town, the neighborhood asked for the concrete to go around its giant camphor tree rather than having it cut down. And the city takes pride in its Sister Witness Tree, the largest sycamore in California that was named a “National Champion Tree” by the American Forests conservation group for its height and girth.

Equally awe-inspiring is the Ellwood Queen — a lemon-scented gum planted by Ellwood Cooper in 1887, and measuring 142 feet tall, with a trunk 14 feet in circumference. Named a Champion Tree on California’s Big Tree Registry, it towers over over Cooper’s ranch, which is being sold off-market, a pending sale that has Goleta historian Tom Modugno worried.

“Rumors are swirling that a developer from Santa Ana has purchased the property and has plans to build four mini mansions,” Modugno wrote at his website, which the Indy republished on December 16. Modugno said he’d heard rumors of a sale from farmers in the canyons, who told him of conversations they’d had with the developer. “This is kind of all hearsay,” he admitted, as he hasn’t been able to track down the buyer or any sale details, but word is that escrow closes on December 21.

Credit: Courtesy

Ellwood Cooper was famous for the thousands of trees he planted on 400 acres off Ellwood Ridge Road — walnuts, olives, persimmons, and almonds — as well as the thousands of plants Mrs. Cooper cared for on the grounds. He ran Jersey cows on another 1,600 acres and wrote to relatives back east that he’d found the “paradise of the western world.” Over time, pieces of the ranch were sold, and the property that holds the Ellwood Queen is just over 24 acres in size today.

Though the majestic tree is a unique piece of Goleta history, it has no historic status to protect it should a developer buy the property and want to cut down the tree, Modugno said. Likewise, Cooper’s redwood barn, built in the 1870s, and several buildings that date to the 1920s are unprotected.

Goleta is in the midst of writing a Historic Preservation Ordinance, but the city hadn’t realized Cooper’s ranch was within its borders until Modugno traced out the boundaries. From his conversations with city officials, he’s fairly sure the property will be among the landmarks the city will be considering when the ordinance comes back to the council in February. “There’s a huge eucalyptus grove there that may or may not have monarch butterflies in it,” he added, “and a Morton Bay Fig Tree as big as the one in Santa Barbara.”

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To Councilmember Stuart Kasdin, it was unambiguous that the city would want to preserve the tree and the barn, as they were described. “We have tools for preserving trees on public lands,” he noted. “However, we don’t have tools for preserving trees on private lands.” The Historic Preservation Ordinance had run into snags on program costs, which is one reason it was returning in February, but he thought, hypothetically, that an urgency ordinance might be possible for the tree or property, but the timing was tricky.

As well, the current zoning on the property might not support the rumors, or perhaps the developer’s hopes. It’s zoned for two primary structures on minimum 10-acre lots, according to the city’s planning department. Kasdin noted that the accessory dwelling unit ordinance would likely allow each primary home to add an adjoining unit. Demolishing any building in Goleta requires permits, and structures over 50 years old add a historic determination. In the case of Cooper’s ranch, those permits would go through a discretionary approval process, said Kelly Hoover, spokesperson for the city.

Modugno was asked to notify the planning director personally if any action on the property appeared to be taking place, and Hoover sent a strongly worded statement: “The City would immediately step in and place a stop work order if any demolition work on this property were reported to us. We will take any enforcement action necessary to ensure compliance with Code requirements.” She said protections were in place even though the Historic Preservation Ordinance hadn’t yet been adopted.

The famous Ellwood Queen could be in any historic listing of the property, she added. “The City of Goleta values its historic and cultural resources and is actively working to protect them.”

The Independent hasn’t been able to determine who the buyer is or if the property is for sale. But if Kasdin is any example, the Goleta council is likely to feel the same loud significance that Tom Modugno does. “Half the town is named after Ellwood,” Kasdin exclaimed. “I live in a place called ‘Ellwood’!”

Correction: This story now correctly states the Ellwood Queen is 14 feet in circumference, not diameter.

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