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Santa Barbara - South County

Future uncertain for pristine Summerland hilltop

SUMMERLAND, Calif. - The Carpinteria Unified School District (CUSD) is preparing to embark on a new school for the community of Summerland.

In order for that to happen, an undeveloped hilltop parcel above town, owned by the District, must sell to the highest bidder. One woman with roots in the ground, is rallying the community for support. 

NewsChannel 3 met up with Leslie Person Ryan on the land she's leased from CUSD for the past year. 

Cornstalks (Beth Farnsworth/KEYT)

Wildflowers and mustard weed dot the hillside property off Whitney Avenue. A closer look reveals lettuce, corn, and other vegetables and fruit sprouting up on the dry farm she planted above a greenbelt. The roots of her business, Sweet Wheel Farm & Flowers, are expanding. 

"The hope is to keep it green, keep it undeveloped, save the land for Summerland," said Person Ryan. "It's Summerland land."

Person Ryan said her lease ends in September.

The 6.84 acre parcel was a nest egg, of sorts, for Summerland School back in the 1950s. Some still see it that way today.

CUSD Superintendent Diana Rigby told NewsChannel 3 that the property is not a viable site for a new school. She added that the District is really limited in what it can do with the land and must follow state law. The "surplus property" has a listing price of $1.325 million and must go to the highest bidder in a sealed bidding process. Proceeds, along with a $90 million dollar bond approved by voters in 2014, will be used to build a new school.

"They have to offer it to another state entity first," said Person Ryan. "And we are coupling with another state entity to purchase the land and keep it for the children and educating the children."

Person Ryan's vision is to make the Whitney parcel a large, community farm. She said the Montecito disaster of 2018 highlighted a glaring reality for Summerland residents. The town became a "food desert."

"We were cut off from Carpinteria. We were cut off from Montecito, with no food."

One scenario during the mudslide disaster stuck with Person Ryan.

"There were two women at the Sandpiper Liquor store that got in a fight over the last stale sandwich. It was the last food in Summerland and one of them had children. She was desperate."

Samples of Person Ryan's colorful corn (Beth Farnsworth/KEYT)

Now with the pandemic, Person Ryan is working to solve the problem with her farm cart on Lillie Avenue. It is stocked daily with organic, homegrown produce thanks in part to her farming partner in Orcutt. Fresh baked items and dry goods are also available. However, she said a prominently displayed flyer is the most important offering: free food to those in need. 

"We help about 100 people in Summerland each month. You have no way of knowing who has food insecurities right now."

Person Ryan also has a second list at the cart. It is a petition to keep her dry farm going. She said so far, 600 people have signed it.

"That's more than half of Summerland." 

Rigby said she supports Person Ryan and everybody who bids on the property. 

"The District has a responsibility to build a new school," said Rigby. 

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Beth Farnsworth

Beth Farnsworth is the evening anchor for KEYT NewsChannel 3. To learn more about Beth, click here

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