Rocky Nook Park Recognized as Historic

County Supes Vote to Preserve Its Natural Beauty

Rocky Nook Park plaque | Credit: Courtesy

After years of advocacy efforts, Rocky Nook Park in Mission Canyon was finally recognized as a historic landmark at the County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday when it was approved by a vote of four to one. 

To ensure the park maintains its historic character, any proposed changes, or repairs other than routine maintenance, will need to go through a review process by the County Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee (HLAC).

Oliver’s Place southern view at Rocky Nook Park | Credit: Courtesy S.B. Historical Society

The park was originally nominated for Santa Barbara County Historic Landmark status in 2016 by Francesca Galt, one of the many community members who spoke in favor of the designation on Tuesday.

“Rocky Nook Park has a deep and thorough history,” Galt said, “but what is even more remarkable is the deep attachment people have for it … the setting itself looks and feels much as it has for centuries.”

According to the HLAC draft resolution, the park “exemplifies and reflects special elements of the County’s cultural, social, aesthetic, and natural history, and its location … epitomizes the natural resources upon which Indigenous Chumash, Spanish missionaries, and early European settlers depended.”

Fanny Oliver at home | Credit: Courtesy S.B. Historical Society

Long before Rocky Nook contributed to the founding of the Presidio and establishment of the Mission, and before it was settled by George SJ Oliver and Frances Dabney Oliver in 1881 — significant figures in Santa Barbara’s history who largely contributed to the park’s preservation — the Chumash lived in and around the park, caretaking the land, and it has remained a gathering place for the community throughout generations.

The park’s original name, given to it by the Chumash, was “Xana’yan,” which means “Rocky.”

“I come here in peace, for change,” said Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto, a Barbareño Chumash elder. “I’m listening to all of you, and I’m not polished or educated, just a savage fighting for her land; you can always settle everything by just giving it back, but that’s not possible, yet. But I have to say this landmark is important. I spent my childhood there. My children spent their childhood there.” 

Between 2016 and 2019, the County Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee (HLAC) collaborated with members of the public and county departments to create a resolution based on Galt’s nomination, but did not take any further action “after it was clear that there was not support at the supervisory level at the time,” according to HLAC Chair Keith Coffman-Grey. 

In April 2022, Coffman-Grey brought the nomination back in resolution form, and in November, the resolution was adopted by the commission.

Rocky Nook estate | Credit: Courtesy MHS Dabney Family Archives

But final approval was delayed when County Parks Department and Public Works voiced concern that the designation would interfere with their maintenance or improvement of the park.

“Kind of at the heart of this matter is that Rocky Nook Park is a well-loved and heavily used public park for passive recreation,” said Jeff Lindgren, assistant director of the County Parks Division.

Frances Alsop Dabney Oliver circa 1860s | Credit: Courtesy MHS Dabney Family Archives

Much discussion and confusion during Tuesday’s board meeting centered on the language of proposed exemptions. The County Public Works and County Parks proposed exemptions for “maintenance, capital improvements, and safety projects.”

Coffman-Grey and some board members worried that “capital improvements” may allow County Parks to modify or make additions without getting approval and consent from HLAC beforehand. However, Lindgren characterized “capital improvements” as projects such as restroom renovations to meet requirements for gender-neutral bathrooms, or the replacement of the playground area. “What we are not talking about is installing pickleball courts,” he said.

First District Supervisor Das Williams put forth the motion to approve the park’s designation as a County Historic Landmark with the proposed resolution language, including exemption of the elements brought up by the Public Works and County Parks department. Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann was the only “no” vote, saying she agreed with the historic designation but was “unpersuaded in this case by Parks” and thought “that capital improvement really undercuts that designation significantly.”

Second District Supervisor Laura Capps rounded out the discussion, saying that the tension over the resolution’s language “was missing the whole point.”

“I think there’s wide agreement here that we want that designation, which really excites me as a child who spent time in this park in the ’70s. Rocky Nook Park will look the same in 100 years from now, 200 years from now,” Capps said.

Historic Rocky Nook cottage built in 1931 | Credit: Parks Department

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