If you go less than a mile away from Camp Arroyo Grande, it’s like you’re in a different world.
It’s right near the Arroyo Grande Village and Highway 101. There’s lots of local businesses, gas stations. A busy street.
But with all the bustle of the city and the highway, stepping foot onto Camp Arroyo Grande is like a protected nature bubble. And now, that bubble is up for sale.
It’s currently a site for kid’s camps. It’s usually meant for Methodist camps -- but they are very open to secular and other religious camps.
Many packed an Arroyo Grande City Council meeting last month to protest. Here are just a few of their stories:
“From the very young age of 6 years old I've been attending a summer camp at Camp Arroyo Grande it every summer and every summer it's been a highlight,” a current camp staff member said.
“By going to camp, I learned to enjoy animals. I learned to enjoy nature,” a former camper said.
“Camp is the best since you can learn about nature. And it's a beautiful open space once it's gone it will be gone forever,” said a current camper, who is 7 years old.
Camp Arroyo Grande is currently owned by the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church, also known as Cal-Pac. They’re based out of Pasadena. Cal-Pac declined an interview for this story. But in a statement they said they are selling the property because its “reduced use and ongoing maintenance costs that present a growing financial hardship.” In Cal-Pac legislation paperwork regarding selling several camps, it said that sale of this particular camp presents a large potential financial return because it’s so close to the Highway and the Village of Arroyo Grande.
Several people have taken steps to preserve the nature of the property. One of them is Ken Miles, a director of Campfire, one of the camps that is held at the property.He’s asked the city to take the lead in coming up with a creative way to acquire the property, similar to the way Pismo Beach once handled the Dinosaur Cave Park property.
“The citizens felt like they didn't need another hotel on the cliffs of the beach and found ways through the city to acquire the property," Miles said. “And now it's the most popular park in Pismo."
In addition to asking the city council for help, they’ve also tried to make the camp and some of its landmarks a historical site.
Rewind back to Arroyo Grande in the 1890s. In fact, it wasn’t even Arroyo Grande yet. It wasn’t an official city until 1911. The camp’s land was owned and then donated to the Methodist Church from John Francis Beckett, a real estate developer who had a big hand in the building of many Central Coast towns in the late 19th century. He was a teacher and was a big voice in local politics. Beckett was a Methodist man. And he donated this land that would later become the camp, according to his deed, “in trust for the use and benefit of the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a religious, educational, and pleasure resort.”
The church then made the property into a local campground, and then built this Tabernacle on the property. The Tabernacle is this large, cone-roofed building that was built on the property in 1897. It’s a 12-sided structure, in honor of Jesus’s 12 disciples. I let Bill Hart, an Arroyo Grande Historian, give me a tour. He’s spent his entire life on the Central Coast, but he lived right next to the property growing up.
“I consider the Tabernacle the most and the campground the most significant historical resource in the city of Arroyo Grande,” Hart said.
Hart said that back in the day, the Tabernacle was home to church revivals, art shows, even women’s suffrage and alcohol prohibition rallies.
“The building is unusual. We found in the San Francisco newspaper there was revivals in here up to with up to 2,000 people attending. Arroyo Grande at the turn of the century was only had between 450 and 500 people,” Hart said. “This whole venue was a significant economic source of income and cultural impact for South County.”
Hart and some others from Arroyo Grande tried to get historical status for the Tabernacle, so it would not be destroyed.
They said lawyers from Cal-Pac argued that status would impact the profit the organization can make on the sale of the property.
And in San Luis Obispo County, if you're a nonprofit and you can show that you've got a state of a financial difficulty that you don't have to abide by the local historical site rules. We asked Cal-Pac about this, and they had referred KCBX back to their original statement.
But in the original deed from John F. Beckett, the original owner of the property, there’s a particular section that may stand in Cal-Pac’s way.
Richard Barbezat, of Grass Valley, is John F. Beckett’s great-grandson. Barbezat has been trying to save the property because of this small section of his great-grandfather’s deed.
According to the document, if any owner of the property that uses it in a way that isn’t what originally set out to be, which is a campsite from the Methodist Church, the property “shall immediately revert to the grantors above named, together with all improvements theron.”
“Well the deed states that if they no longer wish to use it perhaps it was it was originally planned that any rents or profits also if they decide to sell it and not alert anybody that the property and the property and rents would all relate back to him personally or his heirs,” Barbezat said. “That's how the deed is written up.”
Barbezat said his mother, Shirley Beckett Barbezat, fought against the sale of the property ten years ago with this particular piece of the deed. And Cal-Pac allegedly backed off. We did ask Cal-Pac directly about this, and they said they have no comment.
But now, Cal-Pac is being more aggressive. They’re bringing lawyers. And it’s difficult to predict what is going to happen next.
But other people believe that it’s Cal-Pac’s right to do what they want with the property. It’s still their private property, not the public’s. One of those people is Steve Talent, the former director of Camp Arroyo Grande. He spoke at an Arroyo Grande City Council meeting last month.
“I raised my three children there. What is being proposed is they are being told or it's being proposed that they cannot sell the property,” Talent said. “You cannot do that. It's like any of you sitting on the council right now being told you cannot sell your house and it's not right.”
The "Save Camp Arroyo Grande" Team will attend the next Arroyo Grande City Council meeting on Tuesday. They plan to make a demand for the city to acquire the property.