The portion of Santa Barbara Ranch above the highway was given a Notice of Default for failing to restore a creek, per the terms of the development agreement. | Credit: Bill Dewey

Naples, the town that never got built, was back before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. The 19th-century plan for 400 homes on the Gaviota Coast was reduced over the years to 71 homesites called Santa Barbara Ranch, and Tuesday picked up where an appeal hearing in December left off — only one of the many legal battles the development has survived. Why any of this matters is location: Gaviota is the last undeveloped piece of coastal California and a spectacularly beautiful, biologically significant region.

For going on 30 years, environmentalists have fought to preserve as much of Gaviota as legally possible from massive luxury homesites. When hearings were held in previous years, the public commenters pleaded with the supervisors to scuttle or minimize the project. But in 2008, Orange County developer Matt Osgood negotiated a deal with the county for the homes on the portion of Santa Barbara Ranch north of Highway 101. In exchange, the developer was to restore Dos Pueblos Creek to increase fish passage, and every year the planning department would verify the restoration work was taking place.

At Tuesday’s appeal hearing, planning staff gave the supervisors their same recommendation as before — the development was in compliance with the creek agreement — but this time the supervisors accepted it unanimously. What was different was the timeframe. The Inland Development Agreement set April 8, 2021, as the deadline for the creek restoration to be completed. The previous compliance letter was dated March 2021. Planning Director Lisa Plowman’s letter for 2022 found the development in default, which the supervisors also unanimously accepted. That Notice of Default is being appealed by the developer.

Santa Barbara Ranch, aka Naples, project as modified in 2008 | Credit: Courtesy

The development of Naples and Santa Barbara Ranch is complicated, opaque, and convoluted. But for history buffs, it’s a fascinating slice of county history. Naples represents the spark in John Williams’s eye in 1887, a wealthy lumberman from Missouri who laid out a grid for 400 homes on coastal land about 10 miles west of Goleta. It was 900 acres out of the sprawling 15,000-acre Rancho Dos Pueblos — owned by the widower of Rosa Den, herself the widow of Goleta patriarch Nicholas Den — a Mexican land grant from 1842 that stretched to the Goleta Slough. The two pueblos in the name refer to a pair of Chumash villages — Mikuw and Kuya’mu — at the mouth of Dos Pueblos Creek noted by Spanish explorers first in the 16th century. Williams died before the railroad came that far up the coast, an expectation on which he had built his township plans. The grid persisted through subsequent owners, who planted avocados and kept the land in agriculture and orchids. In 1977, the Morehart Land Company revived the township idea, which Highway 101 now split in two.

The millennium brought recessionary complications, and environmental concerns were greater than ever. Osgood had bought the property in 1997 but lost the land to foreclosure in 2010. The Inland Development Agreement he had negotiated two years earlier apparently reduced the number of homes north of the highway to 50, and it added restoration of Dos Pueblos Creek, or another creek in Gaviota, as a public benefit. While the coastal part of the development and its 20 or so homes went into limbo, the legal wrangling on inland development went on until 2014. Once final, it triggered the creek restoration completion dates.

A new complication occurred in 2019 for the owners of Santa Barbara Ranch, which now belonged to Standard Portfolios Asset Management of Azusa. The named creek is within Dos Pueblos Ranch, which split into southern and northern portions in recent years. The northern 2,000-plus acres are listed as agricultural preserve lands in county records and are owned by Simple Avo, an avocado orchard operation. The southern 214 acres were bought early this year by developer Roger Himovitz, whose family set up the Dos Pueblos Institute for sustainable agriculture on the property.

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The landowners of Dos Pueblos Creek pulled out of the deal in 2019. Though Standard has funded the work to plan a restoration, no actual creek restoration has been completed, which resulted in the Notice of Default.

Some idea of what the next appeal hearing might be like came from Stanley Lamport, an attorney who has worked on this project for the developers for a “reeeeally long time,” as he put it. “There are no conspiracies. There are no coincidences,” Lamport said, before charging that their habitat consultant was working toward an alternate creek to restore until the project’s opponents — the Environmental Defense Center (EDC), Santa Barbara Surfrider, and Gaviota Coast Conservancy — spoke to the owners of the alternative project site, the Nature Conservancy.

Rachel Kondor of the EDC deflected the implication as “pure hyperbole.” Though the attorneys had spoken with the Nature Conservancy briefly, she said, the nonprofit had decided on its own not to participate. The real reason the project fell through, Kondor said, was when county staff pointed out that the plan did not actually restore habitat and it was inappropriate to restore a previous owner’s violations. She said inadequate funds remained to do any restoration at all.

As far as funding goes, the accounting for the $400,000 put in by the developer toward completing a restoration plan shows that all but about $30,000 has been spent, largely in trying to make connections with landowners who needed to have a creek restored and in planning. The two sides disagree on whether the funds could be used to raise other funds — by hiring a grant writer, for instance — though Lamport, who told the Independent that he wrote the Inland Development Agreement, insists they can. The next chapter will continue at the appeal of the Notice of Default, which has not yet been set.

Corrections: Juan Cabrillo’s two ships logged the two Chumash villages in the 16th century but didn’t land. Rancho Dos Pueblos was sold in 1887 to John Williams by Greenlief C. Welch, who had married Rosa Den.

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