Poodle | Santa Barbara’s Missing Link: Connecting Bike Lanes and Pipelines

Why John Stahl Sits in the Middle of the Great Coincidence Conundrum

Area of proposed Modoc Road Multi-Use Path | Credit: Courtesy

COLLECTIVE AMNESIA: Usually I go out of my way to avoid arguments with Sherlock Holmes. But on the question of coincidence, I might have to make an exception. Where the likes of Sigmund Freud and C.J. Jung were all agog about the pivotal role of coincidence in human affairs — synchronicity, they preferred to call it — the fictional 19th-century super sleuth was famously contemptuous. “Rarely,” Holmes told his brother Mycroft when asked about the matter, “is the universe so lazy.” 

I raise the issue because last week, I found myself covering two totally disjointed news stories that just happened to be joined at the hip by the ghost of John Valentine Stahl, another one of the most important wheeler dealers in Santa Barbara’s modern political history that nobody’s ever heard of. 

The first involved the nasty showdown — far from resolved — between feuding factions of the South Coast’s enviro camp over a proposed stretch of bike lane — 4,000 feet long — somewhere alongside Modoc Road. The other involved ExxonMobil’s decision to sell off its entire Santa Ynez operation — three offshore platforms, a massive onshore processing plant, and a 123-mile stretch of pipeline that’s been shut down since 2015, when part of that pipe sprung a 4,000-barrel leak, thus shutting down America’s biggest oil company in one of the richest oil-producing counties on the planet for the last seven years.    

But for Stahl, it’s uncertain whether there ever would have been an oil pipeline through which the oil companies could have pumped their black gold in the first place. Back in the day, Exxon and the rest of the industry insisted that God intended them to ship their oil via tankers. Pipelines, they argued, were strictly for sissies and atheists. 

And but for Stahl, there absolutely would have never been a bike path built that connects UCSB to Modoc Road following along an invitingly flat and meandering creekside pathway. Proponents of the new trail — of which I am one — insist this proposed new pathway would connect a key missing link for what would otherwise be a 20-mile continuous system of intertwined bike lanes linking UCSB to Montecito.

To underscore the obvious, without Stahl, there wouldn’t have been a necklace in place to add these necessary pearls. 

Naturally, Stahl’s name was not invoked once in any of these deliberations. I would discover by accident — reading the obituaries section of the Independent, it turns out — that Stahl died just months before, in June of this year.


I knew Stahl well enough only to say I did. He was one of those shrewd guys who could see around corners. As much sinner as saint — he would later work for the oil industry and private developers — Stahl  had one of the great cynical chuckles that called to mind small glasses of amber liquids.

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It would be an exaggeration to say that Stahl singlehandedly yanked political power away from the Good Old Boys who had controlled the board of supervisors from time immemorial and handed it to the South Coast liberal-environmental majority that’s been so dominant — with a few significant hiccups — since the 1970s.

But only slightly.

When a politically outspoken young attorney then still new to town named Jim Slater allowed himself to be talked into running for Third District Supervisor back in 1971, it was John Stahl — a one-time front-counter planner for the County of Santa Barbara — who ran his successful campaign. Fueled by the newly minted Isla Vista voting bloc — 18-year-olds had just been given the right to vote — Stahl and Slater won the Third District. At the same time, a UCSB antiquities professor named Frank Frost shattered the Good Old Boys ceiling in the First District. These were the good old days when Frost felt the need to wear a wire to meetings with developers — one famously would be sent away on bribery charges — and Slater brought his tape recorder to meetings with developers’ representatives.

Stahl didn’t just get Slater elected. He ran Slater’s shop as his consigliere. When Slater became a judge, Stahl took over running the campaign of his successor, a brilliant young veterinarian and ardent slow-growther named Bill Wallace. Wallace, who served five terms, would become the center force of the most formidable political machine ever assembled in Santa Barbara. Stahl also served as Wallace’s chief of staff for a time.

While working for both Slater and Wallace, Stahl waged war on Exxon and the whole oil industry. Later  however, he joined that industry, working for the company that installed the very pipeline that many years later would spring so huge a leak in 2015. 

It was while working with Slater, Stahl got the idea for the UCSB bike path. It was the ’70s; cycling became the environmentally cool thing. There was an energy crisis. Stahl, a Lompoc boy and the son of a project manager who helped build Lake Cachuma, was comfortable with the dozer jockeys at public works departments. He knew where the money was hidden. He knew right-of-ways and flood-control maps. So endowed, he got the first half of the UCSB bike lane built under Slater’s watch; and finished the job under Wallace’s. 

Today, it’s known as the Obern Trail. If the proposed new bike lane is ever built, it should be named after Stahl. If it doesn’t get built, it’s because stupid mistakes were made early on that inflamed the opposition. If Stahl had been involved, those mistakes would never have happened. 

But getting back to coincidences, I’ll take Albert Einstein over Sherlock Holmes. “Coincidence,” Einstein wrote, “is God’s way of staying anonymous.” 

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