SANTA BARBARA — Ellwood Shores, where hawks forage in the fields and monarch butterflies winter in the eucalyptus groves, seems an unlikely battleground.
But this tranquil coastal mesa is a prime development site, commanding a 360-degree view of the sea, tawny grassland and the deep green of the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Its location at the gateway of the Gaviota Coast has thrust this landscape into a heated environmental fight that has far-reaching implications for the last remaining sensitive sites along Southern California's beaches.
The clash pits a developer, who plans to build 161 homes and condominiums on land at the western edge of Goleta, against environmentalists who prize the site for its open space, wildlife habitat and access to bluffs and beaches.
The fight has raged for years in a county where population growth and a desire for economic development have collided with a reverence for the natural beauty that attracted many residents in the first place.
What happens with the Ellwood Shores project and others between UC Santa Barbara and Gaviota is expected to establish precedents for the California Coastal Commission's decisions affecting even larger environmentally sensitive properties.
This year, the commission is expected to grapple with the fate of salt marshes in Los Angeles and Orange County--the Ballona wetlands near Marina del Rey and the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach.
As these issues come to the forefront, the political dynamics of the commission are in a state of flux.
Not only is the panel experiencing turnover among elected officials, it also recently got a new chairman--attorney Carl Williams, an appointee of Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).
If Brown loses his bid for another term as Speaker, that would trigger even more dramatic changes on the 12-member commission, which includes four of his appointees, who could be replaced with the new Speaker's choices.
With such significant economic and environmental issues in the balance, intense behind-the-scenes lobbying of commission members is likely in the months ahead.
"There's a lot at stake," said commission Executive Director Peter Douglas. "There are lots of big issues coming up."
The Gaviota Coast, lying just south of a set of railroad tracks and U.S. 101, includes El Capitan State Beach, Refugio State Beach and Gaviota State Park. Much of the remaining terrain along this 20-mile stretch of oceanfront is ranch land, supporting grazing and limited crops. Occasional oil facilities serve platforms offshore.
The gently rolling coastline with its pastel bluffs and smooth rock outcrops has long been favored by mountain bikers and joggers, surfers and artists, and others just seeking solitude along the shore.
Now, developers are eyeing some of the canyons, grasslands, agricultural properties and oil facilities for residential, resort and recreational construction.
"The last significant stretch of relatively undeveloped, unprotected rural coastline in Southern California is threatened with massive development and urbanization," said Bob Keats, co-chairman of the newly formed Gaviota Coast Committee. "This really is an endangered resource."
What is playing out in Santa Barbara County is a clash between the economics of development and environmental protection--1990s style. In days of limited government resources, one increasingly common way to restore or maintain environmentally sensitive property is to develop part of it.
But Santa Barbara County Supervisor Bill Wallace, a dedicated environmentalist, warns that the Gaviota Coast is being "nibbled away."
In November, after strong lobbying by Atlantic Richfield Co., the Coastal Commission reversed an earlier action and voted 8-2 to approve the company's controversial plans for two golf courses on agriculturally zoned land west of Goleta.
The proposed golf courses lie outside the county's boundary line for urban development. And the commission rejected the advice of staff members who warned that the decision would set a bad precedent by breaking down agricultural zoning and opening the door to more development.
Arco representatives countered that the property contains some oil production facilities, is not currently being used for agricultural purposes and is not viable for crops. Attorney Steven H. Kaufmann said the golf course project will enhance public access to the coastline.
That brought a sharp retort from environmentalists and representatives of the Surfrider Foundation, who argued that the land historically has sustained grazing and crops, and ought to be preserved.
Nathan Post of Surfrider warned that the project will erode agricultural zoning and spawn other coastal developments. "By destroying nature and natural habitats, we are really destroying our soul," Post said.
The $10-million Dos Pueblos golf courses, one 18-hole and the other nine-hole, are not the only projects that could change the look and feel of the Gaviota Coast.