Thursday, March 21, 2013

Why Neverland might never be another Graceland

The following is a position statement issued by the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance on the 24th of July 2009. As you will see, they are very much against turning Neverland into a tourist attraction - and I have to say, their opposition is not entirely groundless. 

"The mission of the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance is to work collaboratively with individuals, groups and government to protect the rural character of the Santa Ynez Valley and support good stewardship of natural and agricultural resources through education, comprehensive planning and public participation. The Alliance supports the Williamson Act and it’s Agricultural Preserve program, works to ensure that growth is supported by comprehensive planning and infrastructure, and discourages urban or suburban sprawl.

In 1988, the late Michael Jackson chose to purchase a large cattle ranch and residence in the Santa Ynez Valley because its remote location provided him with a private retreat distant from fans and media. The large acreage of Sycamore Valley Ranch, with almost 2,700 acres abutting Los Padres National Forest secluded from public view, offered privacy the pop star could not find in urban areas. Although Jackson expanded the residential footprint with a zoo, trains and amusement park rides and renamed the property “Neverland,” the great bulk of the ranch was still grazed by cattle. The acreage remains under Agricultural Preserve contract but is scheduled to be released in a few years.

In 2005, Jackson left the Valley with no plans to return. Financial problems forced Jackson to mortgage and ultimately relinquish control of the property, although his estate maintains a minority interest. Jackson’s furniture, animals, rides, and trains have been removed from the site. Although the theater, train station, and empty cages distinguish the residential envelope, the property essentially remains what it always has been: large-acreage, agriculturally zoned, grazing land. It has now been suggested that the property be renamed “Neverland” once again and developed as a tourist attraction. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the remains of the late pop star be interred on the site and the property converted into a Graceland-style business. The Valley Alliance seeks to discourage the expansion and diversification of inappropriate non-agricultural uses on agriculturally zoned land such as Sycamore Valley Ranch. The Agricultural Element specifically points out the potential conflict with agricultural uses posed by “expanding residential, ranchette and tourist land uses” in the Santa Ynez Valley. The development of urban visitor-serving uses and facilities in a remote rural area is inconsistent with adopted County policy and not supported by existing infrastructure.

Figueroa Mountain Road, where the property is located, is a small rural road serving a handful of residences, a few ranches, two schools, and Los Padres National Forest. The intersection of Figueroa Mountain Road and Hwy. 154, which would be used to access the potential project, has limited sight distance and has been the scene of numerous traffic fatalities. At both Graceland and Hearst Castle, guests can number up to 4,000 or 5,000 on a single day. For comparison purposes, the population of the entire Valley is only 22,000.

The nearest township, Los Olivos, is more than 5 miles from the property and is home to fewer than 1,000 residents. Los Olivos has a shortage of public facilities, including a sewer system. In order to protect groundwater from contamination the area has been deemed a Special Problems District and visitors must use portable toilets. Public services are already stretched to the limit within the Valley. Response times for fire protection services in Ballard and Los Olivos are already inadequate. The ranch is in a High Fire Hazard Area and it is more than 11 miles to the nearest Fire and Police stations. It is more than 10 miles to the nearest sewer system, gas station, and small hospital.

Although the property is located outside the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan boundary, commercialization of the property is clearly inconsistent with the primary goal of the Plan: preservation of the Valley’s rural character. The Environmental Impact Report for the Community Plan demonstrates how seriously existing development potential will impact Valley roadways in the next 20 years. Valley roads are already burdened with commuters, tourists, casino visitors, wine tasters, and service vehicles. Additional traffic-generating development will only exacerbate future problems.The public costs to construct the necessary infrastructure and provide ongoing services for such a project would far exceed any revenue the community might expect to receive.

Infrastructure development would encourage more growth that would result in more impacts to the community. The majority of jobs at a “Neverland” tourist attraction would be poorly compensated service workers who could not expect to find housing within the Valley. Most workers would find it necessary to commute from more affordable housing markets and would therefore add to traffic impactsThe dramatic intensification of non-agricultural uses that would accompany such a project could serve as a precedent to undermine agricultural land use and existing County policy. It would encourage other property owners to exit the Ag Preserve program and pursue speculative non-agricultural development. The Alliance supports the Ag Preserve program and good stewardship of agricultural resources. The Alliance is dedicated to protecting the rural character of the Santa Ynez Valley and works to ensure that growth is supported by comprehensive planning and infrastructure. The Alliance cannot support the intensification and diversification of inappropriate non-agricultural uses on agriculturally zoned land in rural areas. For all these reasons, the Santa Ynez Valley Alliance is opposed to the development of a “Neverland” tourist attraction on the Sycamore Valley Ranch property."

You can see the original statement here - as well as more information on the Valley Alliance: