Sense or Sprawl?

County Supervisors Approve the Housing Element Update

Despite vehement objections and threats of lawsuits by neighborhood preservation groups, the county Board of Supervisors at long last adopted a draft revised housing plan to send to the state. Almost two years ago, the state rejected Santa Barbara County’s original plan on the grounds that the county was required by state law to accommodate more low- and very low-income housing. As several speakers fondly noted, the board’s adoption — on a 4-0 vote — gives Santa Barbara the distinction of being the last county in the state to have an uncertified housing element. Actually, six other counties have housing elements that are out of compliance, and they have yet to even submit a revised draft. Dozens of municipalities are in the same boat.

A countywide land inventory included in the newly adopted plan identifies enough vacant and underdeveloped land to accommodate at least 1,235 more low-income homes than are possible under current zoning. The process of choosing which 62 acres to actually rezone for high-density — designated as 20 units per acre — ostensibly affordable development will come during the action phase of the housing element process, which promises even greater contention than the conceptual part adopted Tuesday afternoon.

The four neighborhood groups who filed the 25-page lawyer’s letter did so under the banner of the Coalition of California Neighborhoods — a name that hints at their intention to band with other disgruntled groups to challenge state housing mandates. Member groups — including the Montecito-based Homeowners Defense Fund, the Eastern Goleta Valley’s Coalition for Sensible Planning, the Preservation of Santa Ynez, and the Preservation of Los Olivos — fear that high-density housing may be forced upon their communities. The coalition hired the law firm of Burke, Williams & Sorensen to accuse the county of violating state law. According to the lawyer’s letter, the plan adopted Tuesday is unrealistic and therefore not legally acceptable. It charges the county with creating “a document intended to placate” the state, irrespective of its ability to make good on its promises. Because the county has no track record of producing such high-density developments, the coalition argues, it would end up developing many more acres at lower density, thereby producing sprawl. It also claimed the plan lacked sufficient analysis of water, sewage, traffic, and other infrastructure impacts. Most pertinent to its clients’ concerns, the letter complained that the updated housing element effectively nullified the various community plans within the county. Meanwhile, other groups applauded the county’s adoption of the housing element. PUEBLO, the litigious California Rural Assistance League, and the Coastal Housing Partnership were the most vocal supporters of the plans to increase affordable housing. Representing the latter, land-use attorney and former Santa Barbara City Attorney Steve Amerikaner opined that the adopted plan is legally sound.

County supervisors and staff said that environmental analysis would take place during the action phase, and they solemnly declared their deep respect for local community plans. Second District Supervisor Susan Rose — whose district encompasses the unincorporated Eastern Goleta Valley — said that Environmental Impact Reviews conducted on potential rezoning sites within the next eight months would help draft that region’s community plan. While virtually all of the units could be built in the North County — an option favored by some neighborhood activists — there is substantial feeling in both north and south that the South County should provide more housing for its workforce, rather than encouraging long commutes. South County supervisors emphasized that the county will never be able to meet all of its low-income housing needs, but that it had a “moral obligation to try.”

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