On June 8th, over 101 acres of land in the West Mesa adjacent to the San Marcos Foothills Preserve were finally protected from development.
This ended a nearly yearlong campaign to preserve the West Mesa and expand the land protected as part of the county preserve.
The battle was won with the support and money of thousands of community members, the tireless efforts and organizing of a close-knit circle of conservation advocates and the resolve of a number of peaceful protesters, many indigenous.
Below is a compilation of events and milestones which shaped the West Mesa’s road to preservation.
2005: Approval of Portion of San Marcos Foothills for Conservation
After much tumultuous back-and-forth, with several failed development proposals dating to the 1980s and 1990s, Santa Barbara County approved the San Marcos Foothills for conservation in November 2005 following community advocacy demanding this designation, according to Environmental Defense Center member Linda Krop.
2007: Approval of Housing Development and Establishment of San Marcos Foothills Preserve
In January 2007, following several years of negotiation and public demands to designate the location for conservation purposes, the owner of the 377-acre San Marcos Foothills property, Bermant Development Company, working alongside local government and Santa Barbara County Parks, subdivided the land into parcels. Approximately 200 acres of the property were christened a county preserve called the San Marcos Foothills Preserve.
A portion of the adjacent open space, roughly one-third or 50 acres of land, including parts of the West Mesa and some surrounding open space below the preserve, was agreed to be slated for eventual residential development.
2008: San Marcos Foothills Preserve Opens to the Public
In early October 2008, the San Marcos Foothills Preserve opened to the public. Second District Supervisor at the time Janet Wolf attended this ceremony, commending the efforts to preserve the land.
Erik Axelson, the deputy director of the Santa Barbara County Parks Department and the individual tasked with developing a plan for the preserve, discussed his hopes that the arrangement satisfies both developers and preservationists. He also discussed management priorities, namely light maintenance of the trail system and land fortification of the preserve intended to prevent erosion.
The ceremony closed with a traditional blessing intended to encourage the “healing and proper keeping of mother earth,” from Art Cisneros, a member of the Barbareño Chumash.
August 2020-March 2021: The Fight To Get Back Land
Save San Marcos Foothills began fundraising in earnest in August 2020. The organization was largely established in response to news of the proposed developments and hearings by the Chadmar Group scheduled for September 2020 at the South Board of Architectural Review, wherein road and utility infrastructure development that winter was ultimately approved.
Conservation advocates from Channel Islands Restoration, including Elihu Gevirtz and Ken Owen, as well as other community activists, notably Nancy Tubiolo, Julia Laraway, Dani Lynch and Samantha Eddy, were the first to speak on the issue and advocate buying the West Mesa land parcels for preservation.
The organization set out contacting media outlets, carrying out community outreach and soliciting donations in order to reach this goal. Their Instagram page made its first post on Oct. 11, 2020.
Save San the Marcos Foothills even received an anonymous 1 million dollar donation in early October, at that time the largest single donation. During the following several months, it comprised a majority of the funds accrued by the organization.
However, an uncertain valuation of the land — ranging anywhere from 5.5 million dollars to well in excess of 16 million dollars — and the lack of a purchase agreement between the Chadmar Group and Save the San Marcos Foothills made building momentum for fundraising difficult, according to Tubiolo.
February 2021: Legal Challenges
On Feb. 8, 2021 at the Save the San Marcos Foothills first public press event, the organization announced the initiation of several legal challenges to the Chadmar Group’s proposed development.
The event, which began with a traditional blessing from Ernestine Ygnacio-De Soto, a Barbareño Chumash Elder, also served to drum up attention for the existing fundraising drive by Save the San Marcos Foothills and featured a call to action for the public to continue fundraising while the litigation unfolded.
Marc Chytilo, an environmental attorney affiliated with Save the San Marcos Foothills, was the person who announced these challenges. They included an objection to the establishment of flood control structures via an easement on the adjacent county park land as well as eight appeals to the Santa Barbara Architectural Board of Review, asking them to reconsider the project due to stipulations in the East Goleta Valley Community Plan.
Gevirtz also voiced concerns regarding the ecological damage which would be wrought by the new development, citing the existing severe fragmentation of grassland habitat throughout the South Coast.
February 25, 2021: Arrests
On Feb. 25, eight protesters — four of them Chumash women — were arrested at a protest against the development of the West Mesa wherein they blocked a bulldozer intended to be used for road grading. The protesters were later released that same day in the afternoon. Another protester at the site was cited but not arrested.
In response to this, Save the San Marcos Foothills made the following statement on their Instagram page, posted alongside a video from the protest: “We want to highlight this arrest from today. An indigenous peaceful protestor is arrested for singing. For SINGING. Today’s arrests were unjust. Today was peaceful, and indigenous bodies were unjustly targeted. We demand Santa Barbara does better. We ask for the protection of sacred lands and the respect of indigenous people.”
Following this development and the ensuing publicization of these arrests — not to mention the Chadmar Group’s intention to proceed with the first stages of development — larger numbers of protestors arrived at the West Mesa the day after, continuing their protests through night and day to ensure that no further development occurs on the West Mesa.
February 25 to March 10, 2021: Sit-in and Negotiations
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, from Feb. 25 to March 10, Save the San Marcos Foothills engaged in negotiation with the Chadmar Group to settle on a proper valuation of the West Mesa property for the purposes of a purchase agreement and the eventual sale of the land parcels.
While these negotiations were unfolding, a group of largely indigenous peaceful protesters continued to conduct a sit-in at the West Mesa property in wait for news of a purchase agreement. Some of these painted, drew, played instruments or silk-screened while on the West Mesa. Others in the broader community began fundraising to support the protesters and provide them with aid and resources during the wait.
March 2021: The Offer To Buy Back Land
On March 10, the Chadmar Group and Save the San Marcos Foothills staged a joint press event to announce a legally binding purchase agreement regarding the West Mesa property.
The agreement valued the property at 18 million dollars. In addition to that, another 2 million dollars would need to be fundraised by conservation advocates in order to finance an endowment to maintain and manage the property and pay for the campaign itself.
This lump sum of money, 18 million dollars, would be due 90 days from the announcement, on June 2, 2021, with several increments working toward this goal, including 5 and 10 million dollars, also having explicit due dates. If these goals were not met, Save the San Marcos Foothills agreed to not further oppose “any final permits, approvals, or the construction,” according to the joint statement.
To facilitate this fundraising effort, Save the San Marcos Foothills also announced a partnership with the Santa Barbara Foundation and the establishment of a fiscal sponsorship fund, the Foothills Forever Fund, to collect donations from the broader community.
While the reaching of a purchase agreement was welcomed by advocates to preserve the land, many indigenous protesters who participated in the sit-in felt frustration with the press event and the erasure and perceived sanitization of the sit-in site, particularly the removal of protest signage.
As one anonymous protester put it: “We were only given 24 hours to pack up and be out of here, just so they could get a nice pretty picture-”
“-with none of our signage and none of our message, [it was] all painted over and erased,” another anonymous protester added.
March 10 to June 9, 2021: Fundraising
Thus began Save the San Marcos Foothills’ rush to obtain 18 million dollars in a little under three months. This was accompanied by campaigns to solicit individual donations, partnerships with businesses and the hosting of various community events.
Accompanying this was a wellspring of community activism, support and dollars.
“The response from the community was unreal. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. So many people reposting, raffling things off, having yard sales and car washes and bake sales. It’s really a beautiful thing how everybody has come together and worked through this adversity,” Marianne Parra, a spokeswoman for Save the San Marcos Foothills, said.
Notable were various benefit concerts by local bands and more prominent acts, with virtual and later live performances by groups like Salty Strings, Iration, Glen Phillips, Zach Gill, Rich Mahan and Bruce Goldish.
The first threshold stipulated by the agreement was 5 million dollars raised by March 24. On March 25, an announcement on the Save the San Marcos Foothills’ Instagram page was made, communicating that this benchmark was in fact met.
The momentum continued to build following this benchmark. By May 24, the movement had managed to raise 10.9 million dollars in 10 weeks. Immediately following that, on May 25, news broke that 1 million dollars had been donated by a single person in the name of preserving the foothills.
Then, on May 27, the Foothills Forever Fund received news of a massive 5 million dollar donation from an anonymous “long-time local business woman.”
This donation single handedly brought the remaining fundraising balance to purchase the land to within 1.5 million dollars.
On June 2, the date of the original deadline for fundraising as stipulated by the agreement with the Chadmar Group, Save the San Marcos Foothills announced an extension to this deadline to June 9, having negotiated the extension with Chadmar following an outpouring of money and support.
June 8, 2021: Completed Fundraising
On June 8, 2021, Save the San Marcos Foothills reached their 18.6 million dollar fundraising goal to purchase the West Mesa property, well in excess of the 18 million dollar sum needed to purchase the West Mesa.
Following this, the organization transitioned to Phase 2, which is ongoing, to raise money in order to retire existing loans, create an endowment, “pay any final costs, and help to restore and steward the land into the future,” as the organization’s Instagram page announced.