Anytime you talk development on the Gaviota Coast, sparks are sure to fly. However, put one of the longest-running agricultural and cattle operations in the area — one that is beyond beautiful and mostly visible from Highway 101 — at the middle of the talk and add a spicy dash of public-access controversy, and, voilà, you have yourself the makings for one heck of a hot potato.
Such is the case of Las Varas Ranch, its owners — the Doheny family — and their plans for a series of potentially development-inducing lot-line adjustments on the nearly 2,000-acre property just east of El Capitán Ranch. The debate, which has been quietly raging at the County Planning Commission level for several months now, was tossed up this week to the supervisors, who, after a couple of hours of debate and public testimony, voted 4-1 (4th District Supervisor Joni Gray was the lone dissenter) in favor of sending the proposal’s existing environmental impact report (EIR) back to the drawing board for more information and possible recirculation.
As far as potential development plans go, the Las Varas proposal seems like a relatively benign one, at least at first blush. Even 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal took the occasion on Tuesday to “applaud” the Doheny family for the “generous” nature of their plan and its apparent aim at protecting the historical agricultural endeavors of the property. Conceived by the late family patriarch Tim Doheny for both private and public benefit, the proposal looks to redefine the existing nine parcels that make up the sprawling Las Varas and Edwards ranches (the property spans both sides of Highway 101) so that one overarching ranch is created with seven new and buildable lots: two 50-something–acre parcels on the ocean, three lots sized 100 to 157 acres in the area between the 101 and the railroad tracks, and two more lots featuring one that is roughly 1,115 acres in size on the mountain side of the highway.
Further, the plan calls for development envelopes on each parcel varying in size from 2.5 to 5 acres, as well as the creation of public-access trails and a parking lot. The trails, as proposed by the Dohenys, would run along the beach from the east end of their property near Dos Pueblos Ranch — accessed via a vertical trail down Las Varas Creek — to the west toward El Capitán State Beach, with an east-to-west inland segment running parallel and north of the 101 that would eventually connect with the existing public trail near El Capitán Ranch.
The proposal, however, is not without detractors. First, there is fear among folks from the Gaviota Coast Conservancy and other enviros that the large building envelopes, lot-line adjustments, and the plan to form a private water company for the property represent a definite step toward development. Even more damning, they contend that this potential was not adequately explored in the current EIR.
Also, as many public speakers were quick to point out on Tuesday, the Doheny proposal does not include any long-term protections, such as an Agricultural Conservation Easement or limits on future residential square footage. Then there is the issue with the proposed public trail system and its ability to satisfy mandates of the California Coastal Act.
As an alternative, the Santa Barbara Trails Council, with the support of more than a dozen area agencies, has proposed reworking the public access so the beach would be reached via a trail through the heart of the property at Gato Canyon, running east to west on the coastal mesa south of the railroad and just above the beach. This option, as expected, has been met with grave concern from Las Varas people, as they fear it would have dire consequences for both their privacy and the success of their cattle operations.
In the end, the supervisors — noting that the current EIR does not consider this trail alternative, its potential impacts, or the various biological, agricultural, and cultural resources specific to the coastal bluff area — directed staff to further investigate the areas in question and then, if necessary, recirculate the EIR. Eventually, the debate will return to the Planning Commission for a final recommendation.