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Supes Punt on Housing Plan

The much-anticipated and long-dreaded Santa Barbara County housing plan sparked community outrage and threats of lawsuits from all sides after it was trotted out Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, who ultimately chose not to take final action. The most strenuous objections came from residents of eastern Goleta Valley, the expected destination of the bulk of the new high-density housing development. Affordable housing advocates and developers supportive of the Draft Housing Element Update responded in kind.

Strange bedfellows have been made since the State of California ordered Santa Barbara to map out its plans for providing its “fair share” of low-income housing. Before then, the environmental movement ran largely on the political steam provided by NIMBY neighborhood preservation activists; social justice advocates held hands with them while all of the above typically opposed profit-driven developers. But the magnetic poles have shifted; on Tuesday, über-developer Michael Towbes stood alongside the Santa Barbara Community Action Network (SBCAN), on whose board sit many of the progressive activists who were driving forces behind the 80,000-person population cap that inadvertently landed the City of Santa Barbara at or near the top of the annual “most expensive places to live” lists.

Members of the business community and low-income housing activists may not share the same agenda, but they both wave the banner of “smart growth” that would encourage urban infill and concentrated affordable housing along transit corridors. Generally speaking, people on this side of the aisle agree with the state: Santa Barbara should build its “fair share” of housing. They are joined by people in the North County who complain that the South County’s failure to house its own workforce puts the housing burden on them, not to mention crowding the freeways with commuters.

Residents in areas targeted for high density — and in those that might eventually be pressured — are pushing back, insisting the state has no business getting involved with Santa Barbara’s housing policies. Chief among the dissenters is the unincorporated area of eastern Goleta Valley, especially along Calle Real and Hollister Avenue. One of the plan’s main strategies is zoning for 20 units per acre in targeted areas.

“In most parts of the state, building 20 units per acre creates affordable housing; here you get million-dollar condos,” said Mary Whalen, vice president of the eastern Goleta neighborhood group Citizens for Sensible Planning (CSP). Along with three other neighborhood groups from Montecito and Santa Ynez, CSP vowed to sue the county on procedural grounds — claiming insufficiently noticed meetings — if the housing element is adopted. One of those neighborhood groups was the Homeowners Defense Fund, whose first president was movie star and Montecito resident Rob Lowe. The HDF’s current president, Sally Jordan, accused the state of behaving “like Hitler” in creating affordable housing mandates.

Jordan’s rhetoric paled that of affordable housing advocate Mickey Flacks, who has pushed for 400 subsidized low-income units on the current MTD-owned site near Turnpike. Defending state housing mandates, Flacks compared those who oppose them to Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who infamously stood at a schoolhouse door to stop federally mandated integration.

Although Montecito has not been explicitly targeted, grumblings about its apparent sacred-cow status and that of Hope Ranch have been heard from various quarters. “I lived in Hope Ranch for 25 years,” said Kathy Lucien, now a resident of eastern Goleta Valley. “We had stables, a tennis court, and nine acres of land. Everybody in Hope Ranch has hired help. Why don’t they build some housing on the land they all own?”

The Draft Housing Element Update returns to the Board of Supervisors on May 9 for final decision. After that, the real fighting begins when plans to implement the policy start to be drawn.

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