Mission ‘Impossible’: Despite Untold Obstacles, Campaign to Preserve San Marcos Foothills Succeeds

By Nick Masuda   |   June 17, 2021
Marc Chytilo played a central role in helping the Foothills Forever campaign raise $18.6 million in just more than 90 days (Photo by Nick Masuda)

“Improbable, but not impossible.”

It became a rallying cry that the Foothills Forever campaign team leaned on since February 25, the day a lawsuit was negotiated to allow the community to rise and purchase 101 acres on the West Mesa of the San Marcos Foothills.

Ninety days. $18 million.

Quite improbable, but activists such as Marc Chytilo don’t like to be told anything is impossible.

On June 8 at approximately 6:30 pm, Mission “Impossible” was conquered.

$18.6 million raised.

Those 101 acres will be forever preserved.

“This was never, ever supposed to happen,” Chytilo said.

“It was doomed from the start. We had our hands tied behind our backs, and our mouths were silenced. So, it made it particularly difficult and it’s that much more satisfying to pull it off.”

Chytilo was responsible for filing the initial lawsuit to stop the development of the land, which led to a negotiation with developer Chuck Lande.

A deal was struck, with a $500,000 non-refundable deposit put down, with an additional $500,000 needed to protect the property in case the campaign slandered the land in any way.

Hence, the hands behind backs and limited voice.

There were three rules of the deal, as the campaign could not speak to the property history or features when it came to:

• wildfire or fire;

•biological resources or endangered species;

• cultural resources or sacred sites.

If any of this occurred, the campaign would have been out $1 million, with no property.

“This substantially limited what we were able to do,” Chytilo said. “We had to make the case for this without mentioning any of these things.”

With only the ability to tell a muted story — with even third-party videos produced by Cody Westheimer needing approval — the campaign also faced significant early deadlines that were daunting.

$4 million due in three weeks. $5 million more three weeks later.

They did it with the help of some friends, with Montecito Bank & Trust aiding with the first deadline, while the Allemall Foundation kicking in funds for the latter.

While this help was mission critical in keeping the campaign going, it was a $250,000 anonymous donor that was encouraging for the volunteer staff, a product of a Heal the Ocean newsletter sent out by Hillary Hauser.

“That buoyed the entire group; it kept us pushing,” Chytilo said.

As of May 25, the campaign was still $6.6 million short of its goal, with just six days remaining before the 90-day deadline.

A day after a meeting of the minds in the backyard of one of the 5,500-plus donors, another $5 million would come in from an anonymous local foundation.

“Truly an angel,” Chytilo said.

That donation will come with the opportunity to name the preserve, but it also allowed for a deadline extension to June 9, one that came with a multi-million-dollar pledge from the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, led by Gregg Hart’s belief in the project.

“There are children that are not even born yet that will be impacted by what has happened over the last 90 days,” Hart said.

And while the campaign did beat the deadline by more than 24 hours, Chytilo knows there is more work to do.

The original goal was $20 million, allowing for the repayment of debt, as well as an endowment for the care the land will need over time.

Chytilo would welcome the opportunity to shake the hand of every donor, but many have chosen to do so anonymously, simply investing in open spaces for the community.

“I wish they’d step up and say, ‘The rest of you come with us, there’s more to do,’” Chytilo said.

But as Chytilo and the group take a collective deep breath, the unprecedented nature of raising $18.6 million in just more than 90 days gives him all the hope he needs that the community will finish this off with a flourish.

After all, this is now a generational legacy.

“It’s the manifested intention of this community,” Chytilo said. 

“It is the commitment that anyone who lives in Santa Barbara and cares about this place. They want to make it better.”


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