by Lea Boyd
Now that the shock has worn off and the news has settled in, Carpinterians are faced with a big task related to the recent purchase of 21 acres of blufftop property on the east end of Carpinteria Avenue—raising $451,000 to truly lock it in as preserved open space. The Land Trust for Santa Barbara County closed escrow on the $6 million property last month and has shouldered responsibility for bringing in most of the remaining funds needed, but Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs is looking to the community to pitch in the nearly half million in order to put the property permanently into the hands of the public.
The land overlooking Rincon Point will cost nearly $8 million when all’s said and done. That price includes the purchase as well as closing costs, property improvements and an endowment fund to help maintain it. Before going public with the effort to acquire Bluffs III, better known as Thunderbowl to many Carpinterians, the Land Trust quietly raised $3 million from anonymous donors. Another $1 million is anticipated from county and state resource protection grants, and the Land Trust and Citizens group are hard at work to bring in the rest. In response to last month’s announcement, community members already have contributed $60,000 toward the Citizens’ $451,000 commitment.
Chet Work, Executive Director of the Land Trust, said that the goal is to raise the necessary funds within a year. Remaining enmeshed in Bluffs III fundraising any longer could limit the Land Trust’s ability to pursue its next opportunity to preserve land. Former property owner Burton Hancock Trust accepted half of the purchase price upfront and financed the rest. The Land Trust hopes to pay off the debt within a year to accrue less interest and a lower overall price.
Citizens for the Bluffs is now distributing donation cans to businesses throughout town. A few quarters, a few dollars, a few hundred dollars—it all makes a difference, said Arturo Tello, president of the group. This weekend, the Palm Loft Gallery opens an art show benefiting the Bluffs purchase, and anyone interested in organizing a fundraiser for friends and family is encouraged to do so and to begin by informing the Citizens group.
Community fundraising is necessary not only to complete the land deal, Tello said, but to give Carpinterians a sense of ownership, pride and stewardship for the new piece of public land. “We are so blessed to have the ocean and the mountains, but we need open space where we can re-create ourselves,” said Tello.
Tello, a painter whose muse is open space, was highly involved in the 1998 effort to save the XX acres of Bluffs that are now Viola Fields and the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve. The community, Tello said, uses that open space extensively and respectfully. “I think people realize that it’s a local treasure and they treat it that way,” he said.
He expects a similar relationship to develop between the community and Bluffs III, though the property needs some TLC first. Heaped with fill dirt and used as a racetrack in the mid-1900s, the vacant land to the far east of town has struggled with illegal dumping issues and neglect.
Nonetheless, both the Land Trust and Citizens share an optimistic vision for its future. “There are no unsacred spaces, only spaces that have been desecrated,” said Tello. “It’s been a little mistreated. We need to help it along a little bit and then let it be what it is; I think it will be wonderful.”
Work said plans haven’t been formalized, but he expects with habitat restoration, improved parking, construction of trail and possibly bathrooms, the property will “really shine.” Ultimately, the Land Trust hopes to transfer the preserve to the city, much as the Bluffs Nature Preserve was handed over nearly two decades ago.
Zoned for a resort, Bluffs III has been in developer crosshairs for decades. The Burton Hancock Trust owned it since the 1960s, Work said, and had entered several purchase agreements with developers in recent years. None of the plans presented proved palatable to the city. Pressure to minimize the extent of development from grassroots groups like Carpinteria Valley Association and Citizens for the Bluffs, along with heavy scrutiny by city staff and elected officials had stymied developers looking to maximize profit. Work said they’d been forced to ask themselves, “Do we execute on a purchase agreement or do we want to walk away? And they’ve ended up walking away.”
The company that held the most recent option, Work said, filed a number of extensions that frustrated the eager-to-sell owner. In situations like that—a willing seller and a supportive community—the Land Trust sees opportunity. The organization, which is dedicated to preserving open spaces that offer agriculture, scenery, recreation and/or natural habitat, was careful not to show its cards in order to avoid pushing a developer into a purchase or to driving the price above market value. Legally, as a nonprofit, a Land Trust can’t pay more for a property than its appraised value.
“We just kind of had to sit on our hands,” said Work of the Land Trust’s approach to securing Bluffs III. At the end of February, the developer failed to secure another extension, and the Land Trust made its move. It vetted the property, locked in a small number of big donors and closed escrow within 100 days.
“It’s not over,” said Work of the Land Trust’s effort to preserve the Carpinteria Bluffs. A 2.5-acre property east of the recent purchase—the elevated area that serves as a launch site for paragliders—could still become a resort, and developers are expected to submit new plans for the Tee Time property to the city soon. “We only work with willing land owners,” said Work. “Those pieces of the puzzle are not ready now.”