South County

Our Community Saved the San Marcos Foothills

BY SAM WATERSTONE | November 3, 2021

The Foothills Forever campaign reached its critical $18.6 million milestone to purchase the West Mesa in June 2021.

The effort to save the San Marcos Foothills was a “90-day project that was decades in the making,” according to campaign strategist and management consultant Mary Rose, who served as the director of the Foothills Forever campaign. Rose, alongside a versatile team of volunteer community leaders, conservation activists, Chumash advisors, and legal experts, was tasked with raising over $18 million in 90 days to purchase the San Marcos Foothills West Mesa – with key support from the Santa Barbara Foundation, which acted as the campaign’s fiscal sponsor. An additional $2 million was needed to pay for an endowment to help steward the property and cover costs.

The San Marcos Foothills is a 300-acre open space located in the unincorporated area between Santa Barbara and Goleta. Two hundred acres were preserved by the County of Santa Barbara in 2005, thanks to efforts from community advocacy groups, including the San Marcos Foothills Coalition, and environmental attorney Marc Chytilo. However, as part of the conservation agreement, a 100-acre area known as the West Mesa was approved for future luxury home development.

“Early on I became really aware of how important the 100-acre West Mesa was as part of the larger open space, the larger ecology, because it has such vibrant, large, unbroken-up grasslands,” shared Ken Owen, Executive Director of Channel Islands Restoration (CIR), the environmental nonprofit that has provided land stewardship services for the County-owned Foothills Preserve since 2010. “And it was, frankly, incomplete to leave off the West Mesa when the property was first being saved. But it just wasn’t politically possible at that time.”

The San Marcos Foothills is home to many species of native plants and animals, including vital native grasslands.

For many of the community members involved in this campaign, the ecological, spiritual and recreational importance of the foothills provided enough of a reason to dedicate themselves to the movement. But the cultural significance of the open space was also a major galvanizing force throughout the fundraising process.

“Folks have been roaming and using this land for a long, long time, and it’s just really important to a lot of people,” said Nancy Weiss, a nonprofit consultant who volunteered on the campaign leadership team. “The different Chumash bands have been here, recreationists of all sorts come here, certainly the community of botanists and biologists, etc. And then during the pandemic, the importance of open space and beautiful places was highlighted for a lot of people. Lastly, we do have a really phenomenal legacy in the Santa Barbara area of preserving open space.”

A Plan to Develop the Foothills – And a Campaign to Save Them 

For almost fifteen years, the approved plans to build luxury homes on the West Mesa languished. Then, in 2020, the Chadmar Group – the real estate developer that controlled the legal rights to the land – began to activate their existing permits to get the ball rolling on the development project.

The folks at Save the San Marcos Foothills and Channel Islands Restoration had already begun working behind the scenes on negotiations to purchase the land a year earlier, but in the meantime the developers continued moving forward with their construction plans. As word began to circulate about the impending construction, community advocates once again teamed up – this time to form the Foothills Forever campaign, led by concerned residents on a mission to help raise enough funds to buy and save the San Marcos Foothills forever.

The Santa Barbara community rallied behind the movement, seeking to protect wildlife habitats, honor Chumash heritage, maintain open space, and provide environmental education opportunities.

In February 2021, the effort became a major community movement when eight land defenders, including three Indigenous women, were arrested for blocking bulldozers from accessing the planned development site.

Following the February 25 protest, Marianne Parra, a community member who has ancestral ties to the San Marcos Foothills, joined the Foothills Forever campaign leadership team. It felt natural to her: Parra was raised by local activists, and fighting to protect the land where her ancestors have lived for thousands of years is part of who she is.

“For my whole life, I’ve lived as a native person in a modern world, trying to keep our ancestral roots and ancestral practices alive. I brought my perspective as a Chumash or a native person to the campaign, because I did have a grandmother that came from the village site that was near [the San Marcos Foothills]. So, I shared what was important to me about saving the land, that we must preserve it as an environment rather than a park, to keep the habitat as natural as possible and to help restore it.”

The leadership group was grateful to add her perspective to the team, and the courage she and other Indigenous protesters displayed helped thrust the Foothills Forever campaign into the public spotlight, building on an active social media campaign that had been launched in 2020.

From there, negotiations to purchase the land took off. A lawsuit filed by Save San Marcos Foothills in January 2021 served as the starting point for talks, and on March 7, 2021, a settlement agreement was signed and the Chadmar Group agreed to sell the West Mesa for $18 million dollars, subject to several conditions – the money had to be raised in 90 days, with a series of interim milestones, and all campaign messaging was subject to Chadmar’s review and approval. Failure to meet the interim and final fundraising milestones, or to keep messaging on track, would cause forfeiture of sizable deposits and allow the development to proceed immediately.

A Capital Campaign to Remember

So how did a group of volunteer community members achieve the seemingly impossible task of raising nearly $20 million in just three months?

“We had to break all the rules for a capital campaign,” Weiss explained. “Normally you plan a year in advance, do a feasibility study, build your campaign leadership and you have at least 50 percent of your money raised before you go public. It’s what I call the science of fundraising – instead, we just had to push the pedal to the metal and do all that as we went along.”

With three months to raise over $18 million dollars, they got creative, and sought to use existing community resources wherever possible. The group connected with the Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF), which quickly agreed to serve as the fiscal sponsor for the newly-formed Foothills Forever Fund. This arrangement allowed the campaign organizers to focus on fundraising while SBF handled the administrative aspects of receiving and processing donations.

“Gary Clark, [SBF’s Director of the Collaboration for Social Impact], who was my longtime colleague at the Fund for Santa Barbara, connected me to [SBF President & CEO] Jackie Carrera and she signed on,” Weiss noted. “I am forever grateful for the access and responsiveness we received from the Foundation because we knew that if this was going to be successful, we needed SBF as our fiscal sponsor to provide that credibility and those community connections. It was definitely a critical partnership and I’m thankful to Jackie and the SBF team.”

Many of the individuals involved in the campaign gathered at the West Mesa in March 2021 to announce the plan to purchase the land.

“The Foundation was so thrilled to be able to support the Foothills Forever Fund in their effort to save the San Marcos Foothills,” said Jackie Carrera. “Thanks to hard work, effective collaboration, and leadership from some very creative and passionate community members, future generations of Santa Barbara County residents will be able to enjoy this pristine wildlife preserve.”

Once the Foothills Forever Fund was set up through SBF, the Foundation had its hands full processing donations large and small. The campaign reached its critical $18.6 million milestone to purchase the land in June 2021, made possible by the generous contributions of cash, pledges, and bridge loans from over 5,500 community members.

Local philanthropists, foundations, and anonymous donors chipped in millions, community banks and individuals provided loans, students held bake sales benefitting the cause, community members raised awareness and money on social media, local businesses hosted fundraisers and donated a share of their proceeds – it was truly a communitywide effort of the highest magnitude.

“Those small donations added up to millions. I mean, it was unbelievable,” said Parra. “It was so beautiful to see all those payments trickling in. For us, it was so emotional – to feel like our ancestors were really here helping us, trying to save these lands. And it’s not just for us, it is for everybody. It makes a huge difference in our community to have open space for everyone.”

“At each critical milestone it seemed we failed, only to have a last-minute miracle save the day,” explained Marc Chytilo, the attorney guiding the effort.  “At the beginning we considered the campaign improbable, but not impossible, given the Santa Barbara community’s history of preserving vital open spaces. As each milestone was met and the level of community support rose, additional donors stepped up, and prior donors gave again. It was not clear we would succeed until just a few days before the close of escrow, when the final gifts were made. The thousands of supporters throughout the community made the difference.”

On October 20, 2021, thanks to the efforts of our State Assemblymember Steve Bennett and State Senator Monique Limón, the Foothills Forever campaign was awarded a $3 million check from the State of California towards the preservation of the San Marcos Foothills open space. This critical funding will be used to help retire the outstanding loans and bring the campaign closer to completion, including setting up a $1 million permanent endowment to help protect and steward the land in perpetuity.

To learn more about the San Marcos Foothills and the Foothills Forever campaign, please visit www.foothillsforever.org.

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