The campaign to save Ellwood Mesa from residential development may receive another $4 million today, if the California Coastal Conservancy Board follows its staff’s recommendation and approves the grant.
The Save Ellwood Mesa campaign, which is the result of a joint effort between the Trust for Public Lands (TPL) and Friends of the Ellwood Coast (FOTEC), needs to raise $20.4 million by the end of the year if the city of Goleta is to purchase the 137-acre property. In addition to the money, the current owners, Comstock Homes and the Santa Barbara Development Partnership, will receive a 38-acre parcel of land in the adjacent Santa Barbara Shores County Park.
After making concessions on the land swap and extending the original deadline for the money until the end of 2004, Bob Comstock of Comstock Homes said he would not give the conservation groups any further time extensions. At the end of the year, Comstock said, he will abandon the land swap and proceed with the planned development of 78 homes on the mesa property.
If the Coastal Conservancy grant is approved, Save Ellwood Mesa will have amassed $17.3 million in just a year and a half of fundraising. Carla Frisk, a project consultant for TPL, said she was excited that the Coastal Conservancy had endorsed the grant proposal.
“The TPL is extremely pleased that the staff of the Coastal Conservancy is recommending approval of a $4 million grant toward the acquisition of Ellwood Mesa,” Frisk said.
While the recommendation is no guarantee that the grant will be approved, Dick Wayman, spokesman for the Coastal Conservancy, said he is confident that the board will follow the staff’s advice.
“Usually our staff’s recommendations are approved,” Wayman said. “There has been no real controversy around this grant, so I would be very surprised if it is not approved.”
With six more months to raise a relatively small portion of the total money needed, Frisk said she was confident that the Save Ellwood Mesa campaign would be able to meet its fundraising goal by the deadline.
“I think that if we didn’t believe we could raise enough money we would never have started this process,” Frisk said. “I just can’t envision the community allowing this to fail.”
Mary Menees, public affairs director for TPL, said the campaign has received a great deal of support from both private citizens and organizations within the community.
“We’ve received more than 3,000 donations, from really small to really big,” Menees said. “A lot of people really care about this.”
Comstock also said he hoped the campaign would succeed, and said he believed that the organizations would be able to raise the money in time.
“I feel it would be the best possible thing that could happen to the Gaviota Coast,” Comstock said.
Ellwood Mesa boasts a wide variety of wildlife, native plants, and opportunities for recreation that make it a popular place for visitors from inside and outside the community. Some of its most famous attractions are the eucalyptus groves where thousands of monarch butterflies come to roost every winter, making it one of the biggest monarch migration stops in California.
Joggers, cyclists and horse riders commonly use the numerous trails that crisscross the mesa, and the Ellwood bluffs offer sightseers, painters and photographers sweeping views of the coastline.
“It’s a very, very significant piece of property,” Frisk said. “The resources of Ellwood Mesa are phenomenal – it’s got something for everybody. It would be devastating to lose it.”
Menees said that despite the mesa’s value, she was concerned that many locals are still unaware that it faces transformation into a residential neighborhood.
“Ellwood is really loved by the community, but a lot of people don’t know it’s threatened by development,” Menees said. “This is the last, best chance to make this work.”
The land swap is just part of a comprehensive plan for the local coastline, called the Joint Proposal for the Ellwood-Devereux Coast. The joint proposal is the result of a combined effort by UCSB, Santa Barbara County and the city of Goleta, all of whom own land on or around Ellwood Mesa.
One of the most significant pieces of the joint proposal is the Open Space and Habitat Management Plan, which is intended to change or relocate development proposals that may affect environmentally sensitive areas like the butterfly groves.
UCSB Senior Planner Shari Hammond said the high level of cooperation required on a project such as the open space plan has made it strenuous work, but that the groups involved have done a remarkable job of working together.
“There has been a tremendous effort on the part of all three organizations to get the open space proposal passed,” Hammond said. “It has been a pretty wild ride on this project.”
All three organizations have proposed building projects that are affected by the open space plan, and the environmental impact reports, or EIRs, for those projects are currently undergoing revision.
Diane Conn, a member of Save Ellwood Shores, said UCSB’s plan to build 236 faculty and 151 student housing units on the property it owns east of Ellwood Mesa is the largest and most ambitious development project of the three. However, she said the size of the project will mean it will have a greater impact on the environment, and it may be some time before that issue is resolved.
“The most controversial project is the university project,” Conn said. “They also had the most unsatisfactory EIR.”