SEEING SUN SPOTS: Timing, as they say, is everything. In this regard, Santa Barbara City Councilmember Brian Barnwell is probably more than a few days late, not to mention a couple million bucks short. Even so, his idea makes a ton of sense, and I’m hoping the powers behind the throne at Cottage Hospital ultimately decide to embrace it rather than hunker down and fight it, as they have so far. The “it” in this case involves putting solar panels on the 115 condos that Cottage has proposed building on the site of its former cross-town rival, the now-defunct St. Francis Hospital. Given the pace of our climatic meltdown, this isn’t just a good idea, it’s a great idea. But Cottage is freaking out for a host of obvious and understandable reasons. They’ve committed to selling 81 of these units to their own workers at astoundingly low prices — from $294,000 to $399,000. At a time when construction costs are going through the roof, any new expense tends to get Cottage’s underwear in a serious knot. Even without the solar panels, hospital administrators claim they’ll be losing millions on the deal instead of breaking even, as they first calculated.
Adding to Cottage’s agitation, Barnwell’s suggestion comes as a last minute Molotov cocktail from someone Cottage always regarded not just as a sensible moderate, but a genuine friend and supporter: When he was on the Planning Commission, Barnwell opined how the St. Francis housing project was perhaps “the finest development ever proposed in the history of Santa Barbara” or words to that effect. So why was he, of all people, mucking up their well-orchestrated plans just as they were preparing for the City Council showdown with a formidable band of neighborhood opponents this Tuesday? From Day One, the neighbors have complained that Cottage’s plans were way too big for the surrounding environs. From Day Two, these critics charged that City Hall conspired to cook the books in Cottage’s favor during environmental review because city officials were so entranced by the largest privately developed affordable housing project ever proposed. Cottage administrators were caught off guard by Barnwell’s solar flare-up, which came to their attention only two weeks ago, but once they regained their balance they responded with both guns blazing. “Late hit!” they charged. “Ad-hoc exaction!” became their legalistic battle cry. Not once in the three years of environmental review, they pointed out, had anyone ever suggested they should include solar power. No other developer has ever been required to provide solar cells. And besides, they argued, the city has no policies or guidelines calling for solar power.
That’s all true. But things happen. Like global warming. We all know last year was either the hottest or second hottest year since we began keeping score, and the 10 hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 1990. It’s gotten so bad that meteorologists and climatologists are now talking seriously about plans to create a protective smog shield — by spewing about 5 million tons of sulfur gases per year into the upper atmosphere — to slow the rate of global warming. This kooky plan was first hatched in 1995 by Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered back in the ’70s how aerosols destroyed the ozone layer. Crutzen’s plan was meant more as the scientific equivalent of a sick joke about what would be required if international policy makers didn’t get off their asses and address the threat of global warming. Now, Crutzen’s joke is on all of us. While Barnwell is relatively new to the green building policy debates sparked by global warming, he’s compensating with his customary enthusiasm coupled with an uncharacteristically desperate urgency. Sparking his passion was a lecture Barnwell attended two months ago by international green building guru Ed Mazria, who argued that planners and architects hold the key to reversing global warming, not George W. Bush or the federal environmental bureaucracy. If you took off the road yesterday all the SUVs and gas guzzlers, Mazria argued, that would only account for 6.5 percent of the nation’s energy consumption and their attendant greenhouse gases. But homes, buildings, and other structures, he argued, accounted for 48 percent of the nation’s energy consumption and 46 percent of the greenhouse gases produced. To fight global warming, he argued, people have to start designing buildings better — whenever and wherever possible, Mazria said, solar power must be included. Stop blaming Bush, he told the crowd, and start taking matters into your own hands. It was the misfortune of Cottage administrators that their St. Francis proposal was the first big project to come before the council since Barnwell got religion.
But not really.
When you look at the numbers, the added costs of solar power — about $21,000 per unit — look a whole lot worse than they actually are. When you factor in the $5,000 rebate the state pays and the $2,000 in tax write-offs offered as solar incentives, the real price is just shy of $17,000 per unit. When those costs are included as part of a standard 30-year housing loan, it comes out to just $100 a month more. When you factor in the savings in energy bills, even Cottage’s own number crunchers concede the solar units will pay for themselves in about 12 years. During 30 years, they estimate the solar units will save their owners about $41,000 in energy costs. From where I sit that looks like a great deal. But Cottage is balking. Its administrators feel they’re being picked on, so they’re drawing a line in the sand. Spare me. If Santa Barbara has a ruling elite calling the shots behind closed doors in smoke-free rooms, it’s the Cottage Hospital board, our local equivalent of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations rolled into one. These movers and shakers are endowed with seismically powered pull, and they do many great things on Cottage’s and the community’s behalf. But they just hate being told what to do. Maybe they shouldn’t wait to be told. In most housing developments, environmental improvements and affordability are mutually exclusive. This is one of those rare cases where Cottage can have its cake and eat it, too. So can we all. I’m hoping that Cottage will feel the heat, see the light, and eventually reconsider. By then, it will be too late for Thanksgiving. But maybe it can be delivered in time for Christmas.
— Nick Welsh