by Ethan Stewart
A series of public forums discussing the Santa Barbara School District’s tentative plans to develop employee housing — for teachers — drew small crowds at La Cumbre Junior High but sparked plenty of tension on Monday. Faced with significant teacher turnover in a region boasting some of the highest housing costs in the nation, the district contracted the Maryland-based development firm UniDev late last year to conduct an economic feasibility study on its Hidden Valley property near Veronica Springs and the Tatum property in the eastern Goleta Valley. After a poll of teachers found that more than 75 percent described themselves as “more likely to stay in the district” if housing assistance was available, UniDev decided to run its development ideas by the general public at meetings last Friday, Saturday, and again this past Monday evening. Though the economic feasibility study addressed five possible outcomes for the two parcels of land — among them an “as is” sale without development entitlements, construction of workforce housing with the revenues going to the district, the development, and sale of market-rate housing — talk at Monday night’s forum largely centered around plans for developing the land as affordable housing for district employees. As UniDev spokesperson Pete Smirniotopoulos explained, “The district has these two assets that aren’t producing any income and they want to do something about it.” He went on to describe vague early-stage plans that ranged from building 65 single-family homes or 150 multifamily homes at the 14-acre Hidden Valley property to 75 single-family houses or 105 duplexes at the 23-acre Tatum property. Area residents in attendance attacked the plans, citing increased traffic and environmental impact, while a perceived conflict of interest cast doubt on the UniDev study. Superintendent Brian Sarvis assured the public that the district had “absolutely no obligation to UniDev” beyond the feasibility study. The firm is expected to deliver official recommendations and findings to the entire school board in mid April.