The Path to the Path

Modoc Path Users Will Be Able to Cycle, Run, Walk, or Roll from Goleta to Santa Barbara

Path supporters and landowners want natives planted in the Modoc Open Space like these coast live oaks. | Credit: Courtesy

For those who haven’t been following, Santa Barbara County snagged a $5.4 million grant from the state’s coveted Active Transportation Program (ATP) to close the three-quarter-mile gap in our region’s multi-use path system through the Modoc Open Space. Currently the paved Obern Trail at the west end of the Open Space dead ends at Modoc Road, forcing cyclists and pedestrians onto the unprotected shoulder of a high-speed, busy road. Not for the faint of heart or those who are lacking skill and confidence. At the east end of the Open Space across Via Senda, the county is completing construction of the first phase of the Modoc Multi-Use Path project which is a one-third-mile paved trail connecting to the city’s recently completed Modoc/Las Positas Path.

Jim Kemp

This beloved urban trail system is part of what makes our region special. So the county’s Modoc Path project, which will connect the off-road paved trails that now bookend the Open Space, is a no brainer. When the Modoc Path is completed, users will be able to cycle, run, walk, or roll from Goleta to Santa Barbara and the waterfront without having to mix with cars on fast, busy roads. People plan vacations around trail systems like this. Providing active transportation users, who aren’t in a vehicle, one safe and separate lane in each direction seems reasonable for a community that prides itself on being bicycle and pedestrian friendly.

Support for the path is extensive, especially when people hear the facts. The Board of Supervisors approved the project and its environmental document on a unanimous vote in November. A 5-0 vote by the board is a solid indicator that the county is committed to the project, and there is no dispute about the need for the path. To underscore the project’s importance and merits, the board added more than $2 million in local matching funds and the county’s ATP grant application scored highest in the state competing against dozens of worthy projects.

Most of the land that the path would be constructed over is privately owned by the La Cumbre Mutual Water Company and its shareholders, which includes 1,300 of my neighbors and me who live in the area surrounding the Modoc Open Space. In the mid-’90s, shareholders voted overwhelmingly to scuttle a proposed sale of the open space to prevent its development and then voted again overwhelmingly to place 25 acres of the open space into a conservation easement that runs with the land forever. Despite the fervent desires of shareholders and users,  efforts to manage, maintain, and improve the open space have fallen far short due to lack of funding.

The 1999 Conservation Easement, which allows certain uses and prohibits others, is a legal instrument to prevent development and to encourage protection, restoration, and enhancement of those portions of the Open Space that include natural and sensitive features.

Meredith Klassen, a Modoc Path supporter, pauses to take in the view of the Open Space on her horse Joleen. | Courtesy

Importantly, the easement includes a provision to expand public access so that the entire community can enjoy the precious and increasingly scarce open space. The lack of an all-weather paved path makes the land off-limits to those who have limited mobility or require wheels to get around, like kids, wheelchair users, and parents with strollers. Public access? Hardly. The path would fix this access barrier that discriminates against some vulnerable community members.

To be clear, the path project requires the removal of some of the non-native eucalyptus trees but none of the Canary Island Palms planted a century or more ago. But let’s be honest and acknowledge that many of these eucalyptus trees are diseased, neglected, present a high fire risk, and are nearing the end of their lifespans. Instead of pretending that these trees will last forever and must be forever protected, wouldn’t it make sense to take the long view and create a succession plan for the open space? Under the easement restrictions, such a plan cannot include replanting non-native trees. Instead, we should be planning for their inexorable demise by planting native trees and plants now. Let’s enhance natural wetlands and grasslands and expand oak woodlands just as the Conservation Easement calls for.

The shareholders of the La Cumbre Mutual Water Co. are offering the community a gift of open space, and the county is completing a path that makes the open space publicly accessible to everyone regardless of age or ability. This is good government and private philanthropy at its best!

After 25 years of benign neglect, opportunity is knocking for the Modoc Open Space and its users. We didn’t vote twice to create this legacy only to do nothing with the land or restrict its enjoyment and use to a select few. It’s time to get busy: Build the path, and plan the future of the Modoc Open Space.

When the path is completed, we invite you to come and enjoy the Modoc Open Space, neighbor! You can return the favor by staying on the path, picking up after your dog, being courteous to other users, and maybe donating a few bucks to the Modoc Preserve Endowment fund.

Trees and Trails is a broad coalition of neighbors, shareholders, and nonprofit organizations that formed to support the Modoc Path project. We want this project and believe that by working cooperatively, the entities with approval authority can design and construct a path that is consistent with the Conservation Easement.

There is a path to the path. Perhaps there is a lack of knowledge or understanding about the history of the Modoc Open Space, the legal documents governing it, and the plans and intentions of the landowners. But there is no real controversy about completing the path. If you want to learn more, or make a donation to support the Modoc Open Space, please visit our website modoctreesandtrails.org where you can read the Conservation Easement along with other documents that point to the path.

Jim Kemp is member of the Trees and Trails Coalition and former executive director for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG).

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