New Group Challenges Montecito Association’s Influence
by Martha Sadler
The Santa Barbara County Supervisors boardroom overflowed with Montecitans Tuesday for a showdown over planning processes in their exclusive enclave of about 10,000 well-heeled residents. In one corner — represented by the Montecito Association (MA) and the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC), were the old-school preservationists who for decades have kept Montecito woodsy and understated. In the other corner was a newly emerging group of activists — calling themselves the Voices of Montecito — that accuses the old guard of being inbred and stuffy.
At issue was the process by which development projects are approved — or not — in Montecito. It is not unusual for homeowners and developers to rise up against aesthetically and environmentally conservative review boards, but in Montecito the battle is rife with intrigue and gossip. For example, the MA and its supporters charge that the new Voices of Montecito activists are merely pawns of Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby mogul and major Montecito property owner whose holdings include the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and Spa, the Coral Casino, San Ysidro Ranch, the Miramar, and the Montecito Country Club. Warner, according to some, has recently become frustrated with the MPC.
The Voices of Montecito made its public debut just a few weeks ago, when a couple dozen of its members showed up to support Warner’s bid to build walkways and a grand stairway down to Butterfly Beach, across from the Biltmore, using materials matching the Biltmore’s. The MPC had turned down the project, saying it made the public beach look like a private extension of the ritzy hotel and would scare off the average beachgoer. Project supporters fired back that the storm-damaged stairs looked like “rubble” and the MPC had done nothing about it. The supervisors, however, unanimously approved the project, merely adding a requirement for signage informing people the beach is public.
Several of those who turned out Tuesday took umbrage at the implication that they were being manipulated by Warner. Cindy Marcus, for one, said she was there because the process of getting approval to build a second story on her house had taken three years. She claims the MPC sent her and her architect back to the drawing board several times — and her architect, Raymond Ketzel, was a member of the commission. Marcus also said the rules need to be clarified so that architects can draw plans that will pass muster the first or second time. While she has her own issues with the MPC, Marcus acknowledged that it was a letter to her signed by Warner that launched her into the role of citizen-activist for reform of Montecito’s planning processes.
Montecito Association activists saw not only Warner’s influence behind the Voices of Montecito group, they also saw the hand of John Davies — owner of Davies Public Affairs, which specializes, according to its Web site, in “the business of persuasion.” The company offers “innovative strategies … to earn attention and gain influence in the decision-making process.” A longtime political and corporate player in Santa Barbara, Davies boasts a 90 percent win ratio in the 150 political campaigns he has run. While that claim has not been confirmed, it does not provoke strong disagreement from other campaign managers.
Warner, one of Davies’s corporate clients, has issues with the MA and MPC. Among other things, he blames them for his failure to renovate the Miramar, which he has owned for almost two years and which has been an unoccupied ruin for the better part of the past decade. At the time that he abandoned his plans for the seaside hotel, his spokesperson said Warner had no confidence that the commission would approve them. It may never be known for certain whether Davies instigated the formation of Voices of Montecito to derail Warner’s foes, but many in Montecito are convinced of it.
Mary Belle Snow, a Voices activist, insisted she has never even met Ty Warner beyond shaking his hand once in the Biltmore lobby. Nor does Voices have any agenda to destroy the 60-year-old MA, she said. All they want is for the Board of Supervisors to appoint a blue-ribbon panel to examine the planning process and determine if a small clique is exerting undue influence in Montecito. Most of the MPC members, who are appointed by the county supervisors, earn the job by working their way through the volunteer ranks of the MA. Snow said she thinks that is too closed a system. Furthermore, Snow said she would like the county planning department to approve development requests without checking with the MA first.
For their part, MA members say that Montecito’s planning processes don’t need fixing and characterize the Voices membership as newcomers — at best naïve, and at worst, bent on recreating La Jolla in Montecito. It is true that most of the people who serve on the community’s planning commission came from the MA and the Montecito Board of Architectural Review. That is a good thing, MPC member Richard Thielscher told the supervisors. They have lived in Montecito most of their lives, he said, are experienced, and are committed to upholding the Montecito Community Plan. Fellow member Jon Warner agreed. “I am amazed that people move into a place with the highest property values in the nation and want to change it to suit their needs,” said Jon Warner, who also indicated that Montecito would reexamine the possibility of cityhood if the supervisors interfered with the status quo. And such a change could mean the possibility of Montecitans taking their property tax revenue with them. Another MA supporter, Michael Zivolli, said the existing process has kept Montecito the “little gem in paradise” that it is, distinguished by its natural beauty from other wealthy communities in Los Angeles and Orange County. MA member Sally Jordan said that by their own admission, most of the Voices of Montecito members didn’t even know what a community plan was six months ago. MA president Robert Collector and several others urged opponents to join them in the Montecito Association. “Anyone can join,” he pleaded. “The process is transparent. If you care so much, join us.”
Tuesday’s argument was not an officially scheduled hearing: The two sides showed up on the occasion of 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s appointment of three members to the MPC — appointments that none of the Voices speakers opposed even though the appointees were all straight out of the MA establishment. Voices instead focused all of its efforts on trying to persuade the supervisors to appoint an outside commission to examine the process. Ultimately, the other four supervisors deferred to Carbajal, who pledged to listen to all sides. Voices did not go away entirely empty-handed, though; Carbajal hinted that perhaps the MA should not physically sign off on encroachment permit requests, as it does now, and he also said he would notify Voices of upcoming issues in the same way that he now notifies the MA.