Council and Developer Come to Terms Over Las Positas Housing Project
by Nick Welsh
Developer Mark Lee and members of the Santa Barbara City Council have been playing a game of high-stakes chicken regarding the fate of Lee’s fiercely fought Veronica Springs housing proposal — slated for the west side of Las Positas Creek — and late Tuesday afternoon, both sides blinked. Lee managed to avoid all but certain defeat by agreeing to reduce the number of homes proposed from 23 to about 15. In a major reversal, Lee also agreed to build his access road through Alan Road rather than construct the entrance bridge he originally proposed, which would have spanned Las Positas Creek directly across from Elings Park. Had he not made these adjustments, Lee could not have cobbled together the five-vote supermajority required for annexation requests (two weeks ago, there were five council votes solidly lined up against Lee; he was given a two-week extension to amend his plan).
Had a tentative deal not been reached, Lee had vowed to submit plans to the County of Santa Barbara, which currently holds jurisdiction, for approval instead. While City Hall expressed confidence it would have prevailed in such a showdown, many councilmembers expressed deep concern about losing many of the traffic enhancements and creek improvements Lee was promising. Not only had Lee agreed to install a new stoplight on Las Positas by Elings Park, but he would have contributed to the construction of a new roundabout at Las Positas and Cliff Drive. Lee had also pledged to spend roughly $3 million on a major creek-restoration effort for Las Positas Creek. Ironically, Lee’s most vocal opposition came from creek-restoration advocates, who charged that support posts for his proposed bridge would damage the creek banks and that Lee’s restoration plans had never been vetted by the city’s Creeks Committee.
The deliberations have proved agonizing for most councilmembers, but none more so than Brian Barnwell, a self-described “creek guy” who strongly backed Lee’s initial proposal. Barnwell objected the council’s last-minute tinkering violated the integrity of a planning process seven years in the making. And by reducing the number of Lee’s homes, he charged, the city would lose out on millions of dollars worth of free restoration for a seriously degraded creek. “I’m more than heartbroken,” he declared. “I’m upset. I’m disappointed. And I don’t know what to do.” Councilmember Das Williams, who had spearheaded the charge against Lee’s project, responded, “When I see open space, I say, ‘Why should we let it be developed at all?’ And I think many residents of the South Coast feel the same way.” The matter now goes back to the Planning Commission and to the Creeks Committee for more review.