“If not now, when?” —Primo Levi
Goleta history lovers probably already know that Goleta is the site of the first shelling of the North American mainland during World War II and also the first organized, scheduled drag races in the US. A less known fact is that Goleta is the site of one of the last remaining shoreline oil wells on the West Coast of the United States, known as “Pier 421.”
Anyone wondering what an oil well is doing on a Goleta Beach may also wonder what the Ellwood Onshore Facility (EOF) for processing petroleum is doing just off of Goleta’s Haskell’s Beach, near to The Bluffs and The Hideaway residential complexes and also next to the Bacara Resort & Spa and the Sandpiper Golf Club.
You might also wonder why this potentially dangerous, 50-year-old oil processing facility is still here, especially since it sits on land that is zoned for recreation, not industrial or commercial uses. In 1990, this property was rezoned by the County of Santa Barbara as “Recreation,” at which time the EOF became a “legal nonconforming use.” Since Goleta’s 2002 incorporation, though the land’s zoning designation continues to be recreation, the EOF has continued to operate as a legal nonconforming use.
Goleta residents concerned about one of our prime beaches being used for processing oil instead of for its zoned uses might fairly ask, “How long should this nonconforming use go on? How long must we put up with the impacts of this dangerous and unattractive facility?”
Under California law, a city is allowed to bring an end to a nonconforming use by one of two ways. The first is to simply compensate the owner for the facility, essentially buying it. A second way is to require removal of the use without buying it by demonstrating that the property owner has had enough use to “recoup a reasonable return on its investment.” This involves something called “an amortization study” to determine when that return is realized.
Just before Goleta incorporated, the County of Santa Barbara conducted such a study, but it lost the opportunity to shut down the EOF because land use authority transferred to the new city. Since Goleta cityhood, several organizations and individuals have been asking the City Council to pick up where the county left off. Finally, in December 2014, the council agreed to hire the same consultant, Baker & O’Brien, to update the study the company had worked on in 2001. The current study was completed on March 4, 2016.
You might think you could easily find this study on Goleta’s website under the Projects and Programs tab where four other Goleta studies are listed. No such luck. But if you can find Goleta’s website search tab and type in “amortization,” and if you then scroll down, you can find the full study. Okay, I’ll make it easier. Just click here: http://www.cityofgoleta.org/home/showdocument?id=11371.
Not surprisingly the study contains some technical analysis and accounting terms. But the bottom-line conclusion on page 3 of the study is as clear as the English language can express:
“We conclude that Venoco’s original capital investment in Ellwood Facilities was fully amortized by 2009, including estimated costs for abandonment.”
Venoco bought the EOF in 1997. Venoco knew then that it came with a nonconforming use designation. Venoco knew that the underlying zoning was for recreation uses. And Venoco knew that it was subject to giving up the EOF when it had recouped its investment. Given the independent study’s conclusion, it would be hard for Venoco to complain if the City of Goleta exercised its right to end the operation of the EOF and to reclaim its designated use potential for only recreation.