Don Miller sat riveted to his television, watching wind-blown embers dance fire through Malibu and San Diego. As he watched, his temper smoldered. “I just kept thinking how the hell I would get my family out if we had a firestorm like that here in Montecito,” Miller said.
For the past six months, well before the Zaca Fire, Miller has been seeking uniform evacuation protocols for the northwest section of Montecito. He says Montecito’s mountain communities-streets like West Mountain, Coyote, Westmont, and Cold Springs Road-are particularly vulnerable because they are nestled close to the highly flammable Los Padres National Forest. Also, one of their major escape routes, State Road 144, has been closed for nearly three years due to a landslide.
During the heavy rains of January 2005, State Road 144-a two-mile, two-lane stretch of road between State Highway 192 and the City of Santa Barbara, locally referred to as lower Sycamore Canyon Road-was covered by a slide, and that was only the beginning of the trouble. Thirty-seven property owners above and below the slide suffered damage, and they blamed Caltrans. They contended a faulty 1998 Caltrans repair to a previous landslide created the potential for the 2005 land slippage. A lawsuit was filed and Caltrans settled in July 2006-dolling out $17.8 million in damages along with a $50 million repair allotment to a newly formed neighborhood group, the Landslide Repair Foundation (LRF).
LRF President Ronald E. Stronach said the settlement authorizes the foundation to assume responsibility for the repair and stabilization of the hillside. LRF is currently in the first phase of a seven-phase repair plan. He said the plan is under county permit review and the first dirt could be moved as early as December. Projected completion date is set for November 2009.
Assemblymember Pedro Nava asked Caltrans to waive all fees associated with state permits. “By waiving the easement permit fees, Caltrans is demonstrating their desire to accelerate the repair,” Nava said. “Area residents want this road opened sooner rather than later.”