City Council Candidates Fight Over Fast Growth vs. Slow Growth
by Martha Sadler • Photographs by Paul Wellman
The Goleta City Council race pits three incumbents who have served since the city’s 2002 incorporation against three challengers who accuse them of being too slow-growth. Goleta voters, eager for cityhood, swept Cynthia Brock, Margaret Connell, and Jack Hawxhurst into office as part of the city’s first council, along with Jonny Wallis and one lone pro-growther, Jean Blois. Just two weeks ago, this council put the finishing touches on a meticulously crafted General Plan that cements slow-growth policies into Goleta’s very foundation. However, even though the entire plan may be certified by the state before the election, there is still ample opportunity for pro-growth candidates — if elected — to debilitate it through the writing of the city’s zoning ordinances.
Two of the three challengers — Michael Bennett and Eric Onnen — share a vision for Goleta’s future that differs markedly from that of the incumbents. If they were both elected, they would form a majority with Blois, whose pro-growth advocacy has so far rendered her the ineffectual fifth wheel on the founding council. Blois has endorsed both Bennett and Onnen; so has the South Coast Political Action Committee, reflecting the positions of the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce leadership. The third challenger is Roger Aceves, who stands on the slow-growth side of the battlefield but says he seeks to temper the council’s more extreme positions.
The citizens of Goleta overwhelmingly voted for slow growth when they incorporated as a city. But that mandate seemed less clear two years later, when, in 2004, Blois and Wallis stood for re-election. In that race, Blois placed first, while slow-growther Wallis was almost unseated by a pro-growth challenger who came in half of a percentage point behind her. It could be that voters were impatient with the ambiguity and delay they faced in trying to make home improvements before the city’s policies were clarified and its bureaucracy erected. The 2004 results also hint that the Chamber of Commerce efforts to promote a philosophy it calls “managed growth” — contrasting with the current council majority’s “slow growth” — may be paying off. Besides housing, other issues in the race include the fate of agriculturally zoned parcels within city limits, environmental protections, business opportunity, and neighborhood character.
The Goleta General Plan proposes to allow development during the next 20 years at the same rate that the area was developed during the past 20 years. One of the plan’s linchpin strategies for slowing the growth rate is the housing policy known as 55 percent inclusion. This controversial policy requires that, in order to build condos along a key stretch of Hollister Avenue, developers must offer 55 percent of the units at prices affordable to people with very-low, low, and moderate incomes. Not only developers, but affordable housing advocates have claimed the city’s 55 percent inclusionary rule is nothing but a ruse for preventing new condo development entirely. Fifty-five percent represents a strict adherence to state mandates for Goleta’s fair share of state housing needs, but critics insist the policy does not obey the state so much as mock it with an overly literal interpretation.
All six candidates own homes in Goleta and raised families in the valley. That’s where the similarities end.
Cynthia Brock: Brock is a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist. A technical communications designer, Brock first entered the public arena as a neighborhood activist seeking to protect the Ellwood Mesa from overdevelopment. She played a key role in that successful effort. Brock is alone among the candidates in seeking the preservation of all agriculturally zoned lands — not just as land banks for future development, but for urban farming in perpetuity. Brock is the only candidate besides Hawxhurst to support 55 percent inclusion. Countering critics’ claims that it would simply halt all development, she noted that there has been an application submitted to develop under the 55 percent rule. Unfortunately, the application is for a piece of land — the Shelby Farm — that the city has designated open space. Nevertheless, she offers the proposal as proof that it can be done. Brock speaks of wanting to preserve Goleta’s character as a city of relatively small houses, but big outdoors. Use of the backyard year-round as an additional room in the home is possible only in California, she said, and a vital aspect of the Goletan way of life. (See cynthiabrock.org.)
Margaret Connell: A 17-year veteran of the Santa Barbara School Board, Connell is widely regarded as the council’s moderate. Connell is endorsing her two fellow incumbents, even though she did not always vote with them. For example, she did not vote in favor of Hawxhurst’s 55 percent rule. She favored instead a 30 percent inclusionary requirement citywide, regarding it as more doable. Connell favors in principle the construction of workforce housing so that people can live where they work. Unlike Brock, she is open to eventually developing agricultural parcels along Hollister Avenue if they are shown to be nonviable as farms; she regards the 265-acre Bishop Ranch as a probable future development site after Hollister is built out to its maximum zoned capacity. Connell said she is leery of breaking any ground at all in the foothills, noting that once it starts it will be difficult to stop and that it will not be affordable. Challengers criticize the council for refusing to even consider transfer of development rights (TDR) from Gaviota to the City of Goleta; TDR is a strategy of allowing landowners to build in urban areas in exchange for them not building on rural and wild lands. Connell echoed fellow incumbents’ sentiments that Goleta did not incorporate so that it could sacrifice its quality of life. “Let Hope Ranch take some TDRs,” she said. (See margaretconnell2006.com.)
Jack Hawxhurst: Hawxhurst is a retired systems analyst and small-business owner. He is also the architect of the 55 percent affordability rule. This, plus his surly impatience with what he clearly considers spurious arguments from developers and their attorneys during their presentations to the council, make him the favored target of all three challengers. According to Hawxhurst’s calculations, only 20 percent of the city’s workers or residents can afford new market-rate condos. So when critics urge the city to adopt a more reasonable 15 percent inclusionary rule, like Santa Barbara, Hawxhurst just rolls his eyes. In his mind, what good does it do Goleta to allow 30 market-rate units in exchange for just five affordable units? “We don’t need high rises or big boxes or 20 units to the acre in order to be successful,” Hawxhurst said. “Believe me,” he continued, “I do understand that they have been teaching in the universities for the past 20 years that there is an efficient way to utilize land that is the better way.” The currently accepted wisdom in land-use planning, dubbed “smart growth,” encourages densely populated, transit-oriented, walkable cities rather than sprawl into the surrounding open space and ranch lands. “But it’s like art appreciation,” Hawxhurst said. “You don’t start a Picasso in the corner of a Rembrandt that is 80 percent finished.” As for accepting TDR from Gaviota to the City of Goleta, he said that Goleta became a city so that it would not continue to be a dumping ground for developments unwanted elsewhere in the South County. (See jackhawxhurst.com.)
Roger Aceves: Roger Aceves is a police officer for the City of Santa Barbara whose résumé includes work as a hostage negotiator and homicide detective. Aceves worked as a sheriff’s deputy before switching to the SBPD, and ran for sheriff in 2002. On growth issues, Aceves walks the middle ground. On one hand, he calls the notorious 55 percent affordable rule for new condo developments “ridiculous.” He believes that a 30 percent affordability rate for new condo developments is reasonable and more likely to produce workforce housing. On the other hand, he doesn’t buy the dire warnings of lawsuits without end if the city doesn’t open its arms to fast growth. Aceves has a low-key, friendly conversational manner that belies his well-developed sense of irony. “They’re going to sue! They’re going to sue!” Aceves said, mocking the other challengers’ frequent allusions to risk of lawsuits when the City Council has contemplated growth-inhibiting ordinances. “Do they know something we don’t know?” Aceves asked. “Maybe [Michael and Eric] should start dropping some names.” The city has every right to make land-use policies, Aceves contended; however, the city must allow new tax-generating housing and businesses at a faster rate than is provided for in the general plan in order to support more parks and other amenities. Aceves said he wants to make Goleta “the world’s safest city,” and wants to see the same officers always patrolling a particular neighborhood. He would like to institute regular neighborhood meetings not only with police but also with city officials in various departments, including streets and sidewalks, so that neighbors can tackle their issues together — and also tackle City Hall together if necessary. (See rogeraceves.com.)
Michael Bennett: Michael Bennett’s new house has become an issue in this campaign. He built it in the midst of a well-preserved, vintage 1960s neighborhood of single-story tract homes. However, Bennett is not one to succumb to nostalgia for preserving Goleta as the way it was — his home is a large two-story unlike anything else in the neighborhood (but he contends that once its landscaping matures, its visual impact will be considerably softened). The City Council enacted its current, more stringent home-size restrictions after Bennett’s house was built. In arguments regarding home sizes, proponents of larger houses often claim they want more rooms in case their parents need to live with them, a claim sometimes greeted with skepticism: In this situation, Bennett’s mother already lives with him and his wife. Although one of his next-door neighbors objected to the fact that his windows now look down onto her backyard pool, she accepted his offer to compensate her by paying to underground her utility lines, and he keeps his shades closed on that side of the house. In common with Eric Onnen, Bennett supports landowners who wish to develop parcels currently zoned as agricultural. These landowners disagree with the farmers who lease the land from them, the residents who value the farms in their neighborhoods, and the recently completed Goleta General Plan. As for Bishop Ranch, Bennett feels the community should participate in deciding what kind of development occurs there, but the property owner has a right to profit.
Bennett is a recently retired battalion chief for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He won the post of mayor in Goleta’s first cityhood election, but never served because that year, the cityhood proposal itself went down to defeat. The Chamber of Commerce named him man of the year in 2006. (See michaeltbennett.us.)
Eric Onnen: Eric Onnen is the proprietor of Santa Barbara Airbus, and the Chamber of Commerce elected him small businessperson of the year in 2001. Onnen, like Bennett, also beats the private property rights drum. Onnen talks about managing growth to ensure Goleta’s quality of life, referring to the “small-town feel: few traffic problems, semi-rural, with some open spaces.” Yet Onnen derides the current council as no-growth. “If you can’t create housing because that’s not allowed, then you can’t create commercial, and then you don’t have a vibrant economy,” he said. He is not saying the city needs growth, Onnen insists; he’s saying that growth is inevitable and must be planned for. This includes the construction of infrastructure, such as larger intersections and overpasses for cars. “If we build the infrastructure to deal with those impacts, what do we lose if the impacts don’t come?” he asked rhetorically. “We don’t lose anything.”
Onnen said he would like to explore the idea of worker-restricted housing to support local businesses. “Our biggest housing problem is [that] the demand is not only local,” he said. “So even when housing is created here, quite often we’re not putting workers in it.”
Instead of obstructing, the council should engage in “open and complete discussion with stakeholders.” For example, the General Plan argues that the Hollister/Storke area — where some have been calling for a big-box Target store and large-scale discount gas station — is built out. Onnen objected to this. “If during the discussion of [specific] projects the community decides there won’t be any more building there, okay. But why take it off the table? Why remove the tool?” Besides, according to Onnen, the city invites lawsuits by telling landowners they can’t develop their land to its full potential. “If you limit size and height so that something won’t develop,” he said, “that’s a taking of rights and will inevitably end up in a court battle, which is not what we want.”
Goleta City Council Candidates Forums: • Sat., Sept. 30, 2pm, Goleta Library, 500 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta, 964-7878. Sponsored by the Gray Panthers.• Thu., Oct. 5, 9am, Cabrillo Pavilion Arts Center, 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd., S.B., 897-1983. Sponsored by the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors. • Thu., Oct. 5, 1pm, Maravilla, 5486 Calle Real, Goleta. Sponsored by Goleta Tomorrow. • Tue., Oct. 10, 7pm, Holiday Inn, 5650 Calle Real, Goleta, 964-6241. Sponsored by the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce.