Fossil Point could be key to Avila Beach's future

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJune 18, 2010 

  • Avila Beach: King of crude oil

    • 1914-1932: the world’s largest crude oil shipping port
    • Before World War II: Unocal pumped 2 million gallons of oil daily through the site to meet the growing demand for transport fuel in the U.S. The crude came from the San Joaquin or Santa Maria Valley oil fields.
    • 1997: Unocal stopped local operations and began removing its 22 storage tanks
    • 2005: Chevron Corp. acquired Unocal

As crews finished excavating a massive oil leak underneath Avila Beach's main street in 2000, county officials adopted a master plan to guide the town's rebirth.

A key recommendation: To build a small conference center with open space on Fossil Point, a 95-acre property on the bluffs just south of the beach with one of the most breathtaking views on the Central Coast.

In the past four years, other community groups have offered their own ideas for the site's development. Yet the future of this prized property is still undecided; the land remains fenced off to the public.

A spokeswoman for Chevron, which owns the land, said it could be years before it submits a permit application to develop the property. The only certainty is that the project would involve multiple uses, including open space, Suzanne Parker said.

"There's so much that has to happen and a lot of thought and analysis to do to make the best decisions," she said.

Open space is No. 1

Based on many previous meetings and reports, a common thread has emerged: Community members think open space should be incorporated into any plan.

Some think that's all there should be.

About three years ago, a committee — the Fossil Point dialogue group — was formed by then-county Supervisor Jerry Lenthall to discuss potential uses for the site.

In August 2007, the Avila Valley Advisory Council held a community forum to review the group's findings, and the public ranked a list of uses, said Pete Kelley, a member of Lenthall's Fossil Point panel and president of the Avila Community Service District.

Open space led the list, followed by a trail, a Chumash Healing Center and a regional park.

After those meetings, a small group of community members, including local developer Rob Rossi, met to develop a plan for the site. Rossi's Fossil Point LLC was chosen by Chevron in 2007 to spearhead development.

Rossi has since stepped back from the project, offering input to Chevron if asked. The local developer has no direct ties to the project now, saying he lacks the time it needs because of other involvements.

A 2008 draft of that group's plan, called "A Place for Healing," focused on restoring the property (55 acres left untouched and preserved), creating a Chumash cultural center, an amphitheater, an interpretive museum and a funicular (a type of railway used on steep grades), among other attractions.

The project also featured several lodging options, including a 50-unit cottage and a 20-unit bed and breakfast. As well, the concept called for a 200-seat restaurant, a cultural gift shop and a 24-unit bungalow for workforce housing.

Julie Andrews Scott, a member of the small group, said she's hopeful the Chumash and Chevron can work together to develop a final plan for the site.

Peg Pinard, a former District 3 county supervisor who worked on the area's master plan, said the community would do well to follow the existing recommendations in the Avila Beach master plan, which were reached after economic and environmental analysis and community meetings.

According to that plan, the conference center would offer a place for events and meetings and could include lodging or a museum focusing on Avila's connection to the sea or Native American culture.

A significant portion of the site was to be reserved for trails and open space.

"The community wrote in the guidelines that it would be developed as aconference center with employee housing," Pinard said. "With a conference center, people would come year-round. This would sustain the restaurants and local businesses that would serve the tourists."

Chevron open to ideas

In recent years, Chevron has learned some important lessons from its meetings with the public.

"We heard what the community had to say, we heard there are multiple perspectives, and we understand that many uses including open space are important," Parker said.

It's Chevron's hope to present "something tangible" for the community of Avila to comment on before it moves ahead with a plan, she said.

The company would like to host additional public meetings soon, Parker said, although dates have not been set.

In the meantime, the company has been meeting with representatives of Native American groups with interest in the property — as well as other key stakeholders — to seek their input on development.

Avila Beach was home to the Chumash people for thousands of years. The former tank farm is considered a sacred site because it contains cultural artifacts.

"We recognize the significance of the site to the Native American community," Parker said. "And we want to incorporate their voices and perspectives into the project plan."

Members of the northern Chumash Tribal Council, which had been meeting with Chevron for about three years, say the company stopped meeting with them in December and instead has reached out to another group.

As a result, the county-based Chumash believe Chevron is moving forward with a project that does not reflect their wishes or the desires of many in the Avila Beach community.

Northern Chumash Tribal Council spokesman Fred Collins said the group does not want a project that would include a hotel, conference center or any physical structure. Rather, the property should be preserved in its natural state and help to tell the story of the Chumash people, he said.

"We'd like to have open space where we could do ceremonies; a place with park benches and a picnic area, and that would allow us to camp on solstice day," he said.

Parker noted that Chevron is trying to build "as broad a base of support for our project as possible," and that entails talking to the northern Chumash, the Salinans and many different Native American groups, as well as Avila residents.

She also said the company didn't terminate its relationship with Collins' group.

"There is a place at the table for everybody," Parker said.

But the company has had several meetings with a group known as Yak Tityu Tityu, which means "the people" in Obispeno Chumash dialect.

"We've been talking to them about what it is that Chevron ultimately wants to do," she said. "The end game is to come up with a project that is beneficial for the community, the indigenous families of SLO County and for Chevron."

Amber Machamer Mata, a spokeswoman for Yak Tityu Tityu, a group of Chumash families that also claim Avila as their homeland, said Chevron has been meeting with them about the project since late last year.

Machamer Mata, who lives in the Bay Area, said the group, while not part of Collins' group, has as much a connection to the land as the northern Chumash Tribal Council members who reside in San Luis Obispo County. Her group, she said, is committed to being part of a comprehensive solution.

"We're really in a fact-finding position right now," she said. "We're learning about process and the constraints of the project, laws and contamination, and requirements and implications for any potential project on the site."

Machamer Mata added: "We take our responsibility very seriously. We have a responsibility to the land, the cultural resources, the tribe and our traditions and the current Avila community."

Collins said the tribal council would be willing to be a part of the discussion, but he said it's up to Chevron to prove to them that it's committed to open space, with the ultimate goal of healing the land and conserving it for future generations.

"We are here to protect the land for our ancestors because they cannot speak for themselves," Collins said.

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