Lifting a line from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” it was 20 years ago today that many of you gathered in the cold with me and my wife Joni for a celebratory midnight toast on the edge of 52 acres of land that would soon become, at the end of a 30-year community struggle, the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve & Viola Playing Fields.

As president of Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, I was honored to give the toast. The effort to purchase and preserve this land was an incredible experience for me and all involved. Along with a group of impassioned, hardworking folks, I had spent the past summer and fall of 1998 spearheading the grassroots public acquisition of the Carpinteria Bluffs. Other than Dorothy Campbell, few of us had but modest fundraising experience at the beginning of that summer. However, as longtime local activists working to save the Bluffs, in an effort begun long ago by Carpinteria Valley Association co-founders Lois Sidenberg and Campbell Grant, we all knew what a special place the Carpinteria Bluffs were.

To save the bluffs, we needed to raise $35,000 day that fall to meet our Dec. 31 deadline. We didn’t let that seemingly insurmountable goal discourage us. We had met and overcome other daunting challenges in the past decade with our grassroots organizing and political campaign skills. So, energized by our passion to save the bluffs, we became quick studies in fundraising.  

Anyone who has visited the Carpinteria Bluffs Nature Preserve has seen the large bronze plaque and sculpture piece permanently honoring several hundred of our largest donors. Missing from that marker, however, is mention of the efforts of the countless volunteers from our community who 20 years ago worked tirelessly as the core of that fundraising campaign. At that time, the Citizens board included myself, Susan Allen, Vera Bensen, Christie Boyd, Dorothy Campbell, Gary Campopiano, Sally Green, Carol Ledig, John Richards, Jan Robotham, Betty Stein and Arturo Tello. Amazing volunteer help came too from Cate  School’s Terry Eagle, who joined us with his fundraising experience to head up our major donor committee, and wife Sally, a grant writer, who became our tireless, unofficial office manager. My father Kenneth Rhodes also joined us to share his knowledge and expertise regarding capital campaigns and major “asks.”  

We partnered with the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County (David Anderson, Carolyn Chandler, Joanie Domingue, Michael Feeney, Kathleen Weinheimer and other board/staff). They brought us great credibility, support and further expertise, not to mention the legal negotiation of the purchase agreement itself. Fueled by the hard work and spirit of dozens of core volunteers (including David Allen, Bob Hansen, Whitney Brooks Abbott, Geri Campopiano, Suzette Doubek, Roger Green, Charles Hamilton, George Johnson, Rebecca Johnson, Bunni Lesh, Kathleen Lord, Donnie Nair, Larry Nimmer, Joyce Powell, Muriel Purcell, Katie Roberts, Stuart Shulman, Jim Stein and musicians Anastasia & John), we were able to solicit an incredible generosity of support from over 3,000 individuals, families, private foundations and public agencies by the time we were done.  

By our Dec. 31, 1998 deadline, we had reached $3.2 million. This wasn’t the final total needed for the $3.95 million purchase and $500,000 endowment fund, but it was enough to place the property safely in Land Trust hands. A generous two year, interest-free $1 million loan from the California Coastal Conservancy gave us the time we needed to raise the balance of funds, craft a conservation easement for property, and gift the land to the city of Carpinteria as open space for our community to use, in perpetuity, for passive and active recreation.  

It would take us another year and a half to reach our final fundraising goal, but on that chilly New Year’s Eve 20 years ago, we had cause to celebrate this amazing grassroots effort, 30 years in the making. Eight years earlier, many of us had worked to help elect Donna Jordan, Michael Ledbetter and Brad Stein to City Council. They had run on a campaign platform that included the importance of preserving open space and had suggested public acquisition as one of the means to do so. The late 1990s were cynical, political times nationally, with a gridlocked Congress, similar to how these past few years have been. Yet, it wasn’t that way in Carpinteria.  

With a City Council and city staff that were attuned to our efforts, we became the “little town that could.” At the end of a land use struggle that had gone on for years, the community pulled together to save a majority of the 81 acre Carpinteria Bluffs and prepared to turn this special coastal open space over to the city for permanent stewardship through the very Council many of us had worked so hard to elect in the first place. How affirming was that? And soon, the news of our Carpinteria grassroots efforts would bring hope and offer encouragement to a dozen other communities around California struggling with dreams and ambitions of their own they would later contact us about. Yes, with enough passion, patience, good humor and perseverance, it  was, indeed, possible to make a difference.  

So let’s pause once more, on New Year’s Eve 2018, to toast the Carpinteria Bluffs, the coming year, and our small town where big dreams can become true.  

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