Deciphering the Village’s Alphabet Soup

A Primer on Montecito’s Land Use Agencies

Moms know a bowl of alphabet soup goes a long way in easing children’s spats. Kids get a kick out of sorting the floating letters and, once attention is diverted, conflict melts away. So given that Montecito—a place with enough acronyms (MA, MBAR, MPC, MCP, LUC, ARC, etc.) to fill a can of Campbell’s—is in a boiling stew regarding some important planning decisions, perhaps some cathartic alphabet sorting might diminish the rhetorical spitballs being lobbed across Montecito these days in letters, mailers, advertisements, and meetings both public and private.


The icebergs currently causing titanic polarization are Westmont College’s building expansion plans, which will be discussed Monday, November 6 at the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC); and the beach staircase across the street from the Biltmore, which is scheduled to be heard by the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, November 7.

Contrary to popular notion, Montecito is not a city and, except for the little cash-cow commercial finger of Coast Village Road, not part of the City of Santa Barbara. The 10,000-person community does not have its own government, looking instead to the county’s Board of Supervisors for official decisions.

Nonetheless, Montecito boasts a long and sophisticated land planning history. In 1930, after three years of hard work by farsighted citizens, it became the first unincorporated area in California to enact a zoning ordinance. Six decades later in 1992, the Board of Supervisors adopted the Montecito Community Plan (MCP), which still serves as the basis for deciding development and design issues.

But there’s wiggle room in the MCP and that’s where Montecito’s alphabet arbitrators come into play. These acronymic organizations—and their changing status—cause confusion among newcomers and longtime players alike. So here’s a primer, from most powerful on down.

Montecito Planning Commission (MPC): Established in 2002 by the Board of Supervisors, the MPC reviews projects under the MCP. Its five members are appointed by the 1st District Supervisor. Currently, the commission is comprised of two attorneys, an engineer, and a community design specialist with 86 years of collective experience in Montecito land use. Only the Board of Supervisors can overrule the MPC decisions.

Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR): The MBAR advises the MPC and county Planning and Development on size, bulk, scale, and aesthetics of proposed buildings. Decisions can be appealed to the MPC. Six of the seven current members are architects and many served with the Montecito Association’s Architectural Review Committee (ARC), MBAR’s predecessor that was disbanded in 2003.

Montecito Association (MA): Begun in 1947, the MA is the oldest and, arguably, the strongest homeowners association in the state. (It certainly shepherds some of the state’s most valuable land!) Although not related to county government in any way, the MA’s decisions on land use and other issues were often rubber-stamped by the county Planning Commission prior to the MPC. As such, the MA earned the reputation as the de facto governing body. But now it’s just an advocacy group. The 17-member board—elected by the MA’s more than 1,000 members—reviews projects at monthly meetings, acts as a discussion forum, and appears before the official government bodies to remind decision makers of the intent of the Montecito Community Plan.

Land-Use Committee (LUC): This subcommittee of the MA meets monthly to review land-use issues. With no authority, the LUC serves only as a study group to advise the MA board. There are currently 13 members; most serve on the MA board and the others are community members with land use experience.

So there you have it. These are the folks who do the hard work of sheltering the tree-canopied lanes, soft landscapes, and well-designed homes that make Montecito one of the most desirable communities in the world. The semi-rural ambiance of Montecito didn’t just happen. We have the alphabet soup to thank.

J’Amy Brown’s Montecito Montage goes online an every Tuesday morning. For more, see

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