The most important vote you can cast this June is the one against splitting Santa Barbara County. If Measure H should pass, it would be a cataclysmic disaster for us all — those stuck in the economic chaos of the new Mission County and those stranded in what would be left of Santa Barbara County. If we approve Measure H, the only thing that will not start falling on our heads will be the sky. One doesn’t need to be Chicken Little to know this.
If you care about the environment, good government, the plight of the poor, regional planning, or common sense, then splitting Santa Barbara County would be an assault on rational self-interest. That’s not to say a new Mission County would be bad for everyone. The oil companies and private developers, like Jim Diani, who has underwritten loans to the county split effort totaling $240,000, would almost immediately reap profits.
The proposed plan is to split Santa Barbara County at the Gaviota Pass. The new county would include Hollister Ranch, Point Conception, the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria, the majority of agricultural land, rolling hills, and open space. And it would include Lake Cachuma, the single most important humanmade source of water for the entire South Coast. Why anyone south of Gaviota would vote to be separated from Lake Cachuma is a mystery. To believe proponents of Measure H, with their bland assurances that the new county will honor Santa Barbara’s old water contracts, flies in the face of reason. It also defies California’s entire history of water, politics, and power.
If the proposed Mission County were to be approved, it would begin with a $30 million budget shortfall, which is why Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special commission concluded that the whole idea was economically unviable. Even if its sales taxes were raised by one cent it would fail to bridge this gap. The only way to balance the budget would be to cut services at least 35 percent. That means less law enforcement, less fire protection, less help for the poor, and fewer road repairs. Worse, the new county would be forced to pay its fair share of the old Santa Barbara County’s capital debt, its workers’ pensions, and other retirement costs.
It couldn’t raise enough money through hotel bed taxes because it has few of the tourist attractions found in the South County, most notably accessible beach frontage. And barring dramatic changes, their property tax base cannot increase significantly. No matter how much Mission County might allow new housing to be built, the costs of providing services and meeting state standards will outflank any revenue from growth. So how will Mission County ever be able to pay for anything?
The most immediate and lucrative way to increase property tax revenue would be to allow offshore oil development and the building of its requisite onshore processing facilities. Why would this be a problem? Aside from the obvious concerns of air and water quality, the biggest problem is the profile of oil companies operating in Santa Barbara County today. Instead of the old energy behemoths — Exxon and Chevron, for example — we’re seeing smaller, more opportunistic companies fighting to suck the last drops from the petrochemical straw. Even if the new county had the will to implement strict environmental standards, most of these companies wouldn’t have the money to comply with them.
Those are just a few reasons why anyone living north of Gaviota should vote against the split. But why should South County voters care? In fact, it’s no secret that some environmentalists are quietly hoping the split occurs. The reasoning is that all the pro-growth lobbyists will suddenly leave the slow-growth residents of southern Santa Barbara alone: “If we never have to hear that obnoxious Andy Caldwell whine again, so be it! Let them build and pollute to their hearts’ content.” It might sound appealing, but it plays out badly.
Air, water, and ecosystems do not recognize county lines. Traffic, pollution, and toxins travel. Those environmentalists hoping to preserve valley oaks, steelhead trout, or other endangered species should remember that most of these still exist only because of the wild, open ranchlands in the north. The irreparable damage that a desperate new county government could do — goaded by developers spouting property-rights jingoisms while actually promoting get-rich schemes to build cluster-housing on agricultural land — will truly be awesome. For the wildlife — flora, fauna, and cowboy alike — it will be a death sentence: one passed, in part, by any South County environmentalist voting for the county split.
And what will happen to the funding necessary for commuter rail or other new transportation options? All those commuters from the north will not be quitting their jobs down south. To do anything about traffic, we must use the whole tax base of the present Santa Barbara County.
But perhaps the most moral, principled reason for anyone to vote against a county split is the recognition that the majority of our poor will be isolated in a virtually bankrupt new county. Surely this would be an act of cruelty.
To those who fear that the south will forever be outnumbered by a North County hostile to its values, buck up. Though there are real differences of opinion on our present county board, solutions are beginning to emerge. Recently two supervisors from the most northern and southern districts — Joe Centeno and Salud Carbajal — have been able to work together. And the entire North County is undergoing a profound demographic change. It’s not just getting bigger; it’s also building a more solid middle class.
The high housing prices in the south have brought former residents to the more hospitable markets of Santa Maria and Lompoc. These people were willing to exchange sea breezes for affordable housing, but they will not so easily tolerate the destruction of their air, water, property values, and the natural glory radiating from the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County. According to a just-released UCSB survey, 47 percent of North County respondents objected to the fast pace of growth. By contrast, only 37 percent of South Coast respondents said growth was too fast. Also, there is a growing awareness among ranchers, cowhands, farmers, and vintners that they can work with an informed, pro-agricultural, urban population to fight the rapacious greed of outside developers.
This is not the time for anyone of us to cut and run, no matter what side of the battleground we have been defending. Stand and protect the beauty and richness of this historic land. Save Santa Barbara County. Vote No on Measure H.
— Marianne Partridge, Editor-in-Chief