The decade-long dispute over the development at Naples took a surprising twist late last week when the project applicant, Orange County developer Matt Osgood, abruptly broke ties with the county and terminated a long-standing Memorandum of Understanding.

Osgood’s decision, which was announced via a letter sent to the county, came after the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted to reconsider a proposed amendment to the MOU adopted by the board last October. The amendment, which was passed during Brooks Firestone’s tenure as 3rd District supervisor, split the proposed 54-home housing project into two separate agreements – effectively allowing Osgood to proceed with the inland portions of the development regardless of any hang-ups with the approval of the coastal lots south of Highway 101.

The board’s decision last October – viewed largely as a victory for Osgood – was harshly condemned by environmental groups and opponents of the project, in particular because it was discussed and voted on in a closed-door session.

The lack of public input, argued Brian Trautwein, environmental analyst for the Environmental Defense Center, was a violation of California’s Brown Act, which essentially requires that the state and local governments do business in the public arena. It was this question of potential illegality that prompted the board, with Doreen Farr now serving as 3rd District supervisor, to reconsider the proposed amendment in a public setting. The hearing had been scheduled for early March.

However, Osgood – who had already received the county’s approval on the project – moved quickly to sever any agreements with the county and has, in an apparent retaliation, said he is no longer willing to provide the public beach access and parking lot the county had fought for. Additionally, Osgood has claimed he is still entitled to develop the inland lots, which do not fall under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission.

“The termination of the MOU is an attempt by the developer to get his project [built] without providing the promised benefits to the community,” Trautwein said. “He is attempting to get the land developed, get money in his pocket, but not provide the community with any benefits in exchange.”

Farr, whose generally anti-development posture has swung the otherwise divided board against Osgood, said she was both surprised and unsure of what the next step was.

“It was a surprise – I didn’t know that was even an option,” Farr said. “If he has terminated the MOU, do we still need to hold a hearing on an amendment to the MOU? I’m not sure but once we know, we’ll let you know.”

Trautwein, whose organization has sued the county for their approval of the project last year, took a harder lined approach to Osgood’s decision.

“The developer terminated the MOU,” he said, “and [the EDC’s] reaction is that this invalidates all the project approvals.”

Even if the project is invalidated, Osgood was quick to point out, the property is already zoned for development, according to an 1888 paper subdivision that has since been upheld by the California Supreme Court. Only instead of the proposed 54 lots, the current zoning provides for over 150 lots, many of which could, potentially, be built regardless of what the county has to say.

This alternative course of action, which Osgood hinted at following the board’s decision to revisit the MOU, was a key reason Firestone voted to split the MOU in the first place.

“What people are not referencing is that because Osgood is a landowner, he has the right to sell the [233] lots, and the buyers have the right to develop them that day,” Firestone said in an interview last October. “It’s not a question of whether [Naples will be developed], but how the development will happen.

“It was a judgment call,” he added.