Third Time’s the Charm

Veronica Meadows Approved

by Nick Welsh

For developer Mark Lee, visits to the City Council chambers have been occasions for genuine dread. During his first visit, councilmembers pointedly told Lee to drastically redesign his controversial housing plans, proposed for the Las Positas Valley alongside Arroyo Burro Creek. The second time, the same councilmembers told Lee they liked his original plans for Veronica Meadows better. But this Tuesday, they gave Lee the five-vote supermajority he needed not only to annex his property into city limits, but to build 25 new houses.

Lee’s victory came in the face of a last-minute blitz orchestrated by environmentalists, who dismissed his creek restoration plans as nothing more than “channel stabilization” and predicted that the entrance bridge Lee has proposed building across Arroyo Burro Creek will become a highway to hell for all the critters and wildlife that rely on what everyone agrees is a seriously degraded channel much in need of improvement. Lee also weathered a firestorm of criticism from affordable housing advocates, who questioned why City Hall was bending over backward to accommodate a developer who proposed building what they characterized as oversized homes for people with oversized incomes.

While Lee and his attorney Steve Amerikaner were ready, willing, and able to defend themselves, their biggest sledgehammer, it turned out, was the residents of nearby Alan Road, who showed up en masse Tuesday night — as they have at every meeting of significance — to oppose any and all efforts to locate the entrance road through their street. From the beginning, Lee sought to avoid Alan Road, proposing instead the entrance bridge across the creek. And from the same beginning, environmentalists — concerned about preserving the Las Positas Valley as “the lungs of Santa Barbara” from a host of projects big and small — sought to force the entrance through Alan Road. They were aided greatly by an environmental report that identified the bridge’s impacts on wildlife as the one significant and unavoidable negative impact of the project.

Since the councilmembers indicated they didn’t like the bridge during Lee’s first close encounter with them, the Alan Road residents have been in a constant state of political mobilization. Based on their pressure — coupled with a satchel full of public improvements that Lee has promised — the council approved Lee’s project with the bridge. Chief among Lee’s promised improvements is the rehabilitation and restoration of both banks of the creek. (Exactly what has been promised has yet to be seen, however, as the final creek plan has not been adopted. The final plan will have to be “peer reviewed” by a biological consultant, and the feelings of the city’s own Creeks Committee explored, before the final plan can be approved by the city’s community development director.) In addition, Lee is on the hook to build new bike and pedestrian pathways linking the Westside and Elings Park to Arroyo Burro Beach; to pay for a new Las Positas traffic light by Elings Park; and to contribute to the costs of a new roundabout at Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive. In addition, Lee promised to include two affordable units.

Opposing the project were Councilmembers Helene Schneider and Das Williams. Williams said he felt “very sad that the soul of Santa Barbara is for sale,” but Councilmember Brian Barnwell suggested that City Hall had extorted concessions from the developer, rather than the developer bribing the council. And Councilmember Grant House gushed, “This is an unprecedented creek and habitat restoration plan.” From the outset, however, the fate of Lee’s project lay in the hands of Mayor Marty Blum, whose vote was essential for Lee to get the five he needed. And even before the meeting, Blum was indicating she’d support the project, based on Lee’s improvements and the howls from Alan Road. “I think it passes the smell test,” she said.

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