SBCTC Releases its Technical Comments on the Las Varas EIR

Following up on its April 12, 2012 letter to the Board of Supervisors, the Trails Council has released a detailed description of the deficiencies it believes need to be addressed as a part of recirculating the Las Varas EIR. These include issues relating to loss of coastal access, conflicts with existing state policy, poorly researched studies or lack of them relating to impacts on agriculture or the cattle operations and lot line adjustments that would create non-viable parcels.

The full text of SBCTC's comments are included below.



Recreation:  Based on our review of existing coastal access at the site, the minimal data in the EIR and our experience with coastal access and recreational trails, the Trails Council believes that the project would create two significant impacts to recreation not currently identified in the EIR as discussed below.

Unmitigated Loss of Existing Coastal Access to Edwards Point: The proposed project would result in the closure of existing long-standing public access to Edwards Point and its proposed potential replacement with a trail along Las Varas Creek, approximately 1 mile east of Edwards Point.  Although dedication of a vertical access easement is proposed, the timing of the proposed “mitigation” (i.e., acquisition and construction) for closure of existing access is uncertain and has a reasonable potential not to be implemented for an extended period of time, if ever.

The Trails Council asserts that closure of long-standing public access is inappropriately identified as only an adverse, but less than significant impact.  Rather the impact should be considered as unavoidable and significant, consistent with the approach taken by the County on the recent Paradiso del Mare EIR.  The proposed mitigation is unfunded, requires approval of an easement from the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) and potentially requires that the County obtain local, state and federal permits for trail construction in a creek that supports rare species. While it is possible that the County may pursue and may obtain funding and may receive approval from the UPRR and state and federal agencies, it is also probable that this will take many years, possibly a decade or more and may not happen at all.  For example, the County is only now potentially opening the Franklin Trail in Carpinteria, almost 25 years after the easement was offered.  The Trails Council is only now building one Orcutt foothill trail 15 years after it was planned by the County and almost a decade after the open space was offered by the developer.  Knowledgeable trail experts understand that such projects can take decades and that an easement alone, while important, mitigates nothing.

Ignoring the reality of how long it can take to open a trail, the EIR blithely employs a “best case” analysis and assumes that grants will become available, easements acquired and permits obtained. As trail building experts, we can assure your Board that completion of such projects requires sustained strong commitments of either (expensive) County staff time or dedicated pursuit by trail organizations which now perform much of the County’s trailing planning and development work.  In either case, it is reasonably foreseeable that the owners of new proposed bluff top mega-mansions will close the existing access, leading to an undetermined and potentially prolonged period where historic public access will be closed.

As a recognized expert group on recreational trail use, the Trails Council believes that loss of long standing public coastal access is a significant physical environmental effect that requires implementation of feasible enforceable mitigation measure.  An offer to dedicate an easement alone does not mitigate this impact in the absence of reasonably foreseeable means to implement this measure.  We note that consistent with CEQA and court cases, the County consistently defines feasible mitigation as those that are planned, funded and scheduled with adequate agency capability to carry out the measure.  No funding is allocated for development of this easement and it strains credibility to assert that the budget strapped County has adequate funding.  Further, with the Parks Department experiencing a major budget crisis and huge organizational changes, it is unclear that the County posses the certain capability of implementing this mitigation. While grants may or may not become available, there is no certainty that this measure will be implemented and its timing is entirely conjectural. Under such circumstances, the prolonged closure of existing access is reasonably foreseeable and the impact must be considered unavoidable and significant and the EIR recirculated to permit public comment on this matter.

In addition, the proposed Las Varas Creek access easement is not taking the existing informal trail users where they want to go.  While the easement may be developed in 10 or 20 years and may provide coastal access to a desirable beach, it does not mitigate the loss of existing access to Edwards Point.  Even if the access is eventually successfully opened, surfers will be required to paddle or walk more than a mile to Edwards Point after walking in a mile to the shoreline.  Further, even walking a mile along the beach is problematic as at most tides the beach between Las Varas Creek and Edwards point is often impassible. This would more than quadruple the distance required to access Edwards Pont via the existing informal trail system and would in all likelihood result in extended paddles during high surf conditions being required for existing users.  This will constitute a major barrier to and loss of existing access.

We are also troubled that the Las Varas EIR employs impact analysis of this issue that appears to be substantially at variance with the previously issued Paradiso del Mare EIR.  In that case, the County found that the loss of existing informal access impact was an unavoidable and significant impact under very similar circumstances; closure of a long-standing informal access and difficult to implement replacement vertical access.  The inconsistent approach of in EIRs for projects in close proximity with similar issues is indicative of major problems with the Las Varas EIR requires clear direction from County management and the Board to rectify.

Finally, we also note that the County found for the Paradiso del Mare project that there was a nexus to require partial mitigation for vertical access impacts due to trail closure, although this project consisted of development of homes on two existing legal lots, without multiple gerrymandered lot line adjustments and a lot split.  We are therefore puzzled over the debate regarding nexus and rough proportionality on the Las Varas project, which has almost identical impacts but involves far broader discretionary actions from the County, including a rezone, vesting tentative map and several lot line adjustments.  If the County can exact mitigation for loss of trail access for permits to build homes on two existing legal lots, it is difficult for citizens to understand why it cannot do so on the Las Varas Ranch. The inconsistent approach to environmental review for these projects seriously undermines public faith in the adequacy of the County’s planning process. This merits further review by the Board.

Proposed Location of the California Coastal Trail Creates Significant Impact Due to Conflicts with Adopted State Policy and Loss of Existing Access:The EIR that finds that acquiring an easement along the north side of US Hwy 101, much of which is almost one mile from the shoreline and outside the Coastal Zone is a beneficial environmental effect.  This is clearly inconsistent with the stated intent of adopted policies of the State of California that the trail be sited as close as physically and aesthetically feasible to the shoreline and within the sited and sounds of the Pacific Ocean.

We note that 14 civic organizations from throughout the County, including the County’s own trail policy advisory body and organizations representing all major trail user groups disagree with this finding.  Rather, these groups have all petitioned the County to locate the CCT close to and along the shoreline consistent with adopted State policy. The Trails Council is deeply disappointed that County P&D, with no significant trails development expertise, is ignoring the unanimous recommendations of the Board of Supervisor’s appointed County Riding and Hiking Trails Advisory Committee (CRAHTAC) and virtually every major trail organization in the County and continues to insist that acquisition of this easement is somehow a beneficial impact.  The trails community is united in viewing the loss of the planned world class near-shoreline segment of the CCT as a significant impact and completely contrary to the desires of the vast majority of the trail using public. It seems the County P&D, without the benefit of significant trails planning expertise, is the only organization supporting this conclusion. Reliance on such inexpert opinion in the face of overwhelming contrary expert opinion seriously undermines the adequacy of this EIR and the credibility of County P&D in the eyes of the community.

When the County’s own trails advisory body, all major trail planning, development and maintenance organizations in the County and the State Coastal Commission and Coastal Conservancy reject this conclusion, the County cannot rely upon unsupported assertions by County P&D with no trails development expertise that the proposed trail location along US Hwy 101 is a beneficial impact under CEQA.  Rather, under CEQA the County should consider the body of expert opinion that this a significant conflict with adopted plans and policies and therefore a significant Land Use impact under CEQA. This is the approach taken by the County on the Paradiso del Mare EIR where that document identified conflicts with adopted trails policies as a significant and unavoidable Land Use impact.

We also note that the current pattern of public use of the site is along the UPRR and the coastal bluff top, not north of the freeway well removed from the coast.  As discussed above, provision of an easement well removed from where the public is currently using informal trails and far from the public’s desired destination (the coast) does nothing to mitigate the impact of reasonably foreseeable loss of existing bluff top access.  Thus this proposed non-coastal easement, which is unlikely to ever be utilized by most of the trail using public, does nothing to mitigate the significant impacts of closure of existing physical access along the UPRR and the bluff top.

We respectfully request that the Board of Supervisors direct County staff to revise the analysis of the issue to reflect expert and broad community opinion that that this is a significant impact and recirculate this EIR for public comment.

Agriculture:  The EIR asserts that the project impacts on agriculture (grazing; cultivated agriculture) could be mitigated yet provides faulty analysis in support of this contention. The EIR continues to erroneously identify potential conflicts between recreational trail access and agriculture, supported only be hearsay and no real data.  The Trails Council believes that the EIR’s analysis is unsubstantiated and inadequate as set forth below:

Impacts to the Existing Grazing Operation:  The proposed lot line adjustments, lot split and eventual sale of these parcels and development of a series of residential estates each valued in the tens of millions of dollars would inevitably lead the pressure from future non-agricultural owners of these residential estates for cessation of grazing on at least some of these parcels.  The imposition of CC&Rs as part of the project description does not offset this impact as the County as the Lead Agency would not be a party to these CC&Rs would not have control over implementation of this mitigation measure. This is directly contrary to our understanding of the requirements of CEQA where that mitigation measures must be both feasible and enforceable.

It is our understanding that the County has historically rejected use of CC&Rs as a mitigation measure to force future owners of such agricultural estates to participate in shared grazing operations. We understand that the County previously rejected this approach for multiple projects, including the nearby Rancho Tajiguas Lot Adjustment as well as the Running Springs Lot Line Adjustment in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Even more simply, it is simply not credible that either the County or the nascent proposed homeowners group will somehow be able to successfully compel future multimillionaire estate owners to graze their $50 million estates if they object.  We note that at the Hollister Ranch, which operates under similar conditions, it is our understanding that more than 30% of the owners refuse to participate in the cattle cooperative.  With all due respect, the current agricultural operator will no longer be in charge of one unified Ranch operation, but will be compelled deal with multiple wealthy future owners and their attorneys who may or may not want cattle grazing outside their elite residential compounds.  The outcome is not hard to predict, at least for some of the parcels. The EIR must be revised to address this issue and provide substantial evidence and analysis supporting the use of CC&Rs, particularly providing real world examples of the long-term success of this approach under other similar circumstances.

Conflicts between Recreational Use and Grazing: Sadly, the EIR relies on hearsay and speculation regarding conflicts between planned recreational uses and grazing. The Trails Council provided the Planning Commission with extensive examples of grazing and recreation co-existing on the central coast and other areas of the state.  Rather than including data and analysis from bonfire public institutions such as the US Forest Service that clearly document the long-term successful co-existence of grazing and recreation trails, the EIR relies upon unsubstantiated analysis to identify conflicts.  This analysis in the EIR must be wholly revised to a fact based analysis that addresses abundant real world examples of the interactions of trail users and cattle.

Creation of Non-Viable Parcels: The EIR needs to expand the analysis of the viability of proposed parcel 7 under the County’s adopted Thresholds of Significance. Proposed parcel 7 located north of US Hwy 101 currently does not currently support cultivated agriculture and the County’s analysis appears to assume that because of this proposed parcel’s size, soils and water availability, it would be viable for agriculture as it could accommodate future expansion of cultivated agriculture, such as the installation of 20 or 30 acres of new orchards. .  However, this analysis appears to have two significant faults.

Appendix C (Agriculture) finds that existing water supplies are adequate for existing agricultural operations, however no assessment appears to be provided in this appendix or in the water supply section for the adequacy water supplies need to support agricultural expansion on proposed parcel 7, presumably necessary to support the finding of long-term agricultural viability of this parcel.  If this is the case, the EIR should discuss the adequacy of supplies to meet long-term water demand of 20-30 acres of new orchards or other cultivated agriculture on this parcel. It is our understanding that this would depend upon water from Gato Creek diverted into Ranch reservoir.  The EIR appears to contain analysis that this water supply is sufficient for existing in most years, but in dry years is supplemented by poor quality water from existing wells. The EIR should clearly demonstrate that adequate water supply would be available for expansion of cultivated agriculture on this parcel which would require as much as 30-40 acre feet per year of agricultural water supply.

It would also be noted that during the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s, diversions from Gato Creek into the onsite reservoir caused significant impacts to due to die off of downstream riparian habitat due to prolonged cessation of flows as most of the creek’s water was diverted to into the reservoir to support agriculture.  If expansion of irrigated agriculture is required for this parcel to be viable, the EIR should address any secondary impacts of expanded cultivated agriculture on Parcel 7 to flows in Gato Creek.  In addition, the impacts to onsite biological resources from such expansion should also be identified as they would occur as a result on the proposed project.

Project Description:  The Trails Council is concerned that the proposed bluff top lot line adjustment is dependent upon parcel C being consider a developable parcel. We have submitted substantial evidence in Attachment A that Parcel has not been proven to be a legal developable parcel and that the EIR is wholly inadequate in its analysis of this issue.  Parcel C exhibits major existing constraints including soils that are highly constrained for wastewater disposal, significant cultural resources, noise, bluff retreat hazards, biological resources and view corridors from the Union Pacific Railroad all of which severely constrain this parcel’s development potential.  The EIR fails to fully analyze and disclose these issues.  The cursory analysis of this critical issue in the No Project Alternative does not meet the standards required under the County’s ordinances to address this critical issue.  Until Parcel C can be clearly demonstrated to be developable, it cannot be used a basis for the proposed bluff top lot line adjustment.

Alternatives:  The Alternatives analysis improperly dismisses a near shoreline alignment of the CCT as infeasible, and based on unsubstantiated and cursory analysis dismisses this alternative from further reconsideration.  Not only is this cursory analysis wholly inadequate under CEQA, it is insulting the the broad range of community organizations  We believe that this information demonstrates that acquisition and construction of a near shoreline segment of the CCT across Las Varas Ranch is clearly physically feasible, is the option most consistent with adopted policy and well within the capabilities of the Trails Community and County to implement.  We also contend that this information is the type and depth of analysis that the County itself could have and should have prepared and that it is the lack of such real information and analysis which renders the county’s existing EIR and staff report so inadequate.  To summarize the conclusion of our attached analyses:

Railroad Crossings:  Our research has shown that jurisdictions throughout Southern and central California have created new railroad trails and crossings and are actively planning new crossing facilities, including the County of Santa Barbara and City of Carpinteria.  The Trails Council does not contend that installation of crossings of the railroad will be easy, simply that such crossing have been frequently completed and can be feasible installed n Las Varas Ranch.  We note that the EIR and staff report contain no information, real analysis or examples of such crossings.

Grazing: Our research has shown that grazing and trails coexist throughout the state and that trail design can minimize both direct and indirect loss of grazing land. We note that the EIR is utterly lacking in quantification of impacts to grazing or real analysis of the issue and relies on hearsay or speculation to support its findings.  The EIR ignores the relatively vast body of information available on this issue.  The Trail council is confident that we can work cooperatively with the existing cattle operator to design and implement a bluff top CCT.

Bridges and Creek Crossings:  We have provided substantial evidence that the County and other jurisdictions regular approve and construct trail bridges and boardwalks across riparian areas and simply require that impacts be mitigated.  The impacts of construction of three 20-40 foot long bridges can be mitigated and funding acquired for such construction.

  1. A.    Development Potential of Existing Parcel C: 

Existing 8.35 acre bluff top Parcel C located in the southwest corner of Las Varas Ranch and under the law is considered a legal parcel for purposes of sale, lease or finance only.  Under adopted County ordinances it can only be considered a developable parcel if it meets certain tests as set forth in County ordinance, including avoidance of a variety of constraints and consistency with all polices and standards of the County’s Comprehensive Plan, including the Local Coastal Plan {SB County Code, Chapter 21 - Land Divisions, Section 21-93 (a)}.  We note that, in addition to polices regarding protection of cultural resources, views, etc, the County’s adopted Parks, Recreation and Trails Maps (PRT Maps) are part of the Local Coastal Plan and thus should have the force of law similar to other adopted maps such as zoning or ESH maps.

Parcel C currently exhibits substantial environmental constraints which may render this parcel either undevelopable or severely constrain its development potential.  We note that Section 21-93 (a) 3 (A) (iii) states that “The lot line adjustment shall not result in a greater number of residential developable parcels than existed prior to the adjustment.”  However, as set forth below, existing documentation on the realistic development potential of the substandard sized parcels on the Las Varas the Ranch is mostly lacking in the draft EIR, which is particularly relevant for Parcel C.  Even without such analysis, the No Project Alternative of the draft EIR already acknowledges that the long narrow nature of the parcel may limit developable area and size of future structures. Known constraints on parcel C include which may severely impede or prohibit development include:

  • Cultural Resources:  Approximately the western 30% (3 +/- acres) or more of Parcel C supports highly significant cultural resources which may qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.  This 30% of the parcel is severely constrained for development.  In addition, based upon the known focus of previous review of these resources, it is probable that the boundary of this cultural resource site is not well defined, even given focused subsequent ground surface surveys (i.e., no excavations).  This indicates that any proposed development of this parcel would have potential to require subsurface testing to provide clear cultural resource site boundary delineation.  Such surveys have the potential to render additional areas of Parcel C undevelopable or require imposition of setbacks (e.g., 50-100 feet) further constraining site development potential. Because of its proximity to highly sensitive Cultural Resources, any development on parcel C may require consultation with the Native American community and associated substantial future environmental review.  The EIR does not mention or assess the potential effect of these resources on development potential of Parcel C.
  • The revised EIR should provide a clear analysis of potential effects on cultural resources associated with possible development on Parcel C, including identifying potentially required cultural resource studies and degree of impediment imposed on development of the remainder of this parcel such as potentially required future subsurface boundary exploration, Native American consultation and potential for any development of the parcel to create significant adverse indirect effects to cultural resources.   Such an analysis should be supported by expert opinion. 
  • Noise:  The 65 dBA noise corridor of the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) extends an estimated 75 feet into the northern end of parcel C, with noise levels as high as 68 dBA 50 feet from the UPRR (Paradiso del Mare EIR).  Exposure of future residential development to such high noise levels is typically found to be a potentially significant impact during County review of projects. At a minimum, this noise contour may restrict development within 75 feet or more of the UPRR or require construction of noise barriers with secondary effects on ocean views from the UPRR.  Noise is not discussed in the EIR and no discussion of the potential effects of high noise levels on the development potential of Parcel C is provided in the EIR.
  • The revised EIR should provide an analysis of potential noise constraints on Parcel C, potential effects on development potential (e.g., setbacks) and secondary effects of noise mitigation (e.g., sound walls) on visual resources).
  • Bluff Retreat: The Las Varas Ranch draft EIR uses a figure of a 70 foot required setback to protect future homes from coastal erosion along the bluff top, with 150 feet mentioned as potentially required to account for accelerated bluff retreat associated with future climate change.  The existing EIR does not provide a discussion of bluff retreat constraints as they apply to Parcel C and their potential to limit developable area.
  •  The revised EIR should provide an analysis of potential bluff retreat constraints and their effect on the developable area of Parcel C. Both existing adopted policy represented as a 70 foot setback and future climate change related accelerated bluff retreat rates should be discussed.
  •  Aesthetics and Coastal View Corridors: The EIR provides only very cursory analysis of the potential effects of future development on Parcel C and appears to rely on future review by the Board of Architectural Review to mitigate possible impacts.  Reliance on future studies or review does not constitute mitigation under CEQA unless the reviewing body is charged with implementing a clear set of mitigation measures that have been vetted during environmental review.  In addition, no specific discussion is included of potential effects on views from US Hwy 101, the UPRR or offshore locations regarding development of Parcel C.  From this extremely cursory analysis, it is impossible for EIR reviewers to determine if future development could be found as “subordinate to surrounding natural landforms” as required by adopted County policy.
  • The revised EIR should provide an analysis of potential aesthetic impacts of development of Parcel C, including views from offshore and the UPRR and assess whether such development could be found consistent with adopted County policy.
  • Wastewater Disposal: Wastewater disposal and the ability to dispose of septic effluent has been identified as a major issue for development of small to mid-sized parcels at the nearby Santa Barbara Ranch and even for larger parcels of 60 or more acres in size at the Paradiso del Mare project site to the east.  For a small 8.35 acre bluff top parcel, adequate disposal of sewage effluent would appear to be a major constraint.  Inability to locate a site with adequate percolation for either septic systems or drywells has the potential to be a significant challenge given the limited area onsite that may be available for construction of wastewater disposal systems.  Such systems may not be constructed within culturally sensitive areas, bluff retreat setback areas or ESH areas.  Yet, the EIR does not discuss wastewater disposal constraints on Parcel C and absent any analysis, appears to assume that the parcel can easily accommodate wastewater disposal for a new single family residence, guest house, etc.  This conclusion is contradictory to that reached in both the Santa Barbara Ranch and Paradiso del Mare EIRs.
  • Given the known constraints of onsite soils for wastewater disposal, the revised EIR must demonstrate that feasible disposal of wastewater water generated by potential development of Parcel C is reasonably foreseeable under adopted County standards. Given the small size of the parcel and limited area available to accommodate wastewater disposal systems, such as conclusion should be supported by substantial evidence in the record such as percolation testing as well as expert opinion issued by County Environmental Health based on such testing.

Conclusion: The draft EIR currently contains inadequate information to determine if Parcel C on the Las Varas Ranch constitutes a developable parcel under adopted County Plans, Policies and Ordinances.   At a minimum, it is clear that existing Parcel C exhibits severe environmental constraints that either render it undevelopable or severely constrained for development.  As a primary basis for the lot line adjustment south of the UPRR, this information calls into question a fundamental component of the proposed project description as well as the accompanying information and analysis in the EIR.  As such, it may constitute substantial new information as defined in Section 15088.5 (a) (4).  Based on the above cursory analysis, this appears to have potential be the case.  A final determination of the adequacy of the EIR and the need to provide the public with additional meaningful opportunity to comment on new information would need to be considered once additional information and expert analysis is added to the EIR.

The revised EIR should thoroughly document and disclose the development potential of all existing parcels, particularly substandard sized parcels such as Parcel C.  This analysis should be supported by expert opinion where appropriate, including for noise, cultural resource and wastewater disposal.  The EIR should clearly validate how much if any of Parcel C can be developed.  If parcel is developable, the County should explore if the greatly increased property value of the far larger development envelope on proposed Parcel 1 and the associated environmental impacts of constructing a future large mansion on that parcel provide a nexus and rough proportionality for exaction of an easement for the CCT across proposed parcels 1 and 2.