SANTA BARBARA — During the 1950s and 1960s, Fess Parker starred in the television shows "Davy Crockett" and "Daniel Boone" and was known to a generation of children as the embodiment of the forthright frontiersman.
Today, in a case of life imitating television, Parker makes his living in essentially the same way as the frontiersmen he once portrayed--developing land. And he is finding that the straight-shooting image he cultivated in his television roles is helpful in promoting a controversial project he has proposed here.
During the last week, Parker invoked the Crockett image as he campaigned door to door on a municipal election referendum over whether he should be allowed to build Santa Barbara's largest hotel and an adjoining conference center on a beachfront parcel of land he owns. Voters go to the polls today.
"People are telling me that the values of the show, the values of Davy Crockett, still mean something to them," said Parker, who lives in Montecito.
But many environmentalists who grew up idolizing Parker, and who are approaching middle age, oppose the project. Yet he has been able to garner support from enough activists to split Santa Barbara's powerful environmental lobby.
In the past, the environmental movement in Santa Barbara, which evolved into one of the most cohesive, influential such forces in the country after the large oil spill in 1969, stood unified on such major issues as growth, oil development and water issues.
But because environmentalists were involved in planning for the convention center and exacted numerous concessions from Parker, many have endorsed the 360-room hotel and the 1,000-person capacity conference center, which is expected to generate about $1.5 million a year in tax revenue for the city. They argue that if Parker's proposal is defeated, the city runs the risk of getting a less environmentally sensitive plan in its place.
Opponents of the plan accuse environmentalists who support Parker of being "co-opted" and of "betraying the movement." But City Councilman Tom Rogers, considered one of the council's strongest environmentalists, defends the cooperative approach.
The Parker proposal is significant, he said, because it represents the first time that environmentalists and developers have successfully negotiated on an issue in Santa Barbara.
"Saying no to everything isn't going to work in 1985," he said. "That just doesn't fly anymore. You have to negotiate today; you have to exert choice."
"Santa Barbarans have a tradition for turning down any kind of proposal for change," added Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge. "But the city can turn down only so many projects, and if this is rejected, we could end up with three or four smaller hotels with more total rooms."
Plans Were Revised
Parker spent nine years seeking approval for the project and said he revised his plans seven times to accommodate environmental concerns.
But Fred Eissler, who heads the opposition, contends that the development would still be too large for Santa Barbara and if approved would "signal to developers that Santa Barbara is ready and willing to accept their massive projects." The city, he said, would evolve into a "low-rise version of Waikiki Beach with Taco Bell architecture."
Eissler and other critics of the project argue that a much smaller development or a park could be located on the site, an argument that city officials dismiss as unrealistic. One city planning commissioner quipped that if Parker had proposed a Chumash Indian village on the site, Eissler would complain that the tepees were too high.
The Sierra Club and the Audubon Society have officially joined Eissler in opposing the project, but their ranks, and those of almost every environmental group in the city, were divided.
'First Major Split'
"When our board originally made the decision, some of our members were pretty vocal and hostile to us," said Robert Lindsay, president of the Audubon Society's Santa Barbara chapter. "This is the first split I can recall on a major environmental issue."
Similarly, when the Citizens Planning Assn., a group that monitors development in the Santa Barbara area, endorsed the project, several members quit.
Controversy over the site dates to 1972, when two other firms jointly proposed a hotel and conference center on the site, a 32-acre strip along an oceanfront boulevard. Their plan was more than double the size of the current project.
Environmentalists and others opposed to the project joined in an organization, Committee for Santa Barbara, to defeat the plan. Then Parker purchased the property and submitted a new proposal.
The committee also opposed that, and Parker, who proposes to build on 23 of the 32 acres he owns, submitted the first of many revisions.