Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle inserted a rather large fly into the ointment of developer Mark Lee and his plans to build 25 homes on the undeveloped stretch of land near Las Positas Creek known as Veronica Meadows. Anderle’s ruling effectively undoes the approval Lee secured from the Santa Barbara City Council last December. At the very least, the council will have to revisit the findings it made in approving Lee’s proposal, a process that could set Lee back two or three months. At the most, Anderle’s ruling could also invalidate critical portions of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) upon which the council’s decision was based. Remedying that could take far longer.
In response to a lawsuit against Lee’s project filed by the Urban Creeks Council and Citizens Planning Association, Anderle concluded the City Council violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving a project with “unavoidable and unmitigatable” negative environmental impacts when feasible development alternatives posed fewer environmental consequences. In this case, the EIR concluded that the entrance bridge Lee proposed building across Los Positas Creek-strategically avoiding Alan Road, where residents bemoan the hordes who already park there for Arroyo Burro Beach access-would significantly impact the creek’s wildlife. Instead, Anderle noted that the EIR identified Alan Road as an environmentally superior entrance to the project. The city council could dismiss alternatives only if they were found infeasible, he ruled. No such evidence had been provided.
Lee’s attorney, Steve Amerikaner, sought unsuccessfully to persuade Anderle that many of the improvements promised by Lee-substantial creek restoration; a roundabout at Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive; a new traffic signal at the entrance to Elings Park; a bicycle and pedestrian pathway linking the Westside, Hidden Valley, and Bel Air Knolls-would not be provided by the alternatives. “These are objectives of the project,” he said. “They can’t be met by the Alan Road alternatives.” But Anderle ruled that California environmental law requires decision-makers to declare alternatives infeasible before permitting a project with unavoidable negative environmental impacts. If the project is remanded to the City Council merely to make new findings, City Attorney Steve Wiley suggested it’s quite possible the council could declare the Alan Road alternative infeasible and provide evidence to bolster that claim. (Amerikaner conceded that the Alan Road proposal, even with the number of proposed units reduced to 15, is “physically feasible.”) Lee’s opponents fear this possibility and have consequently been urging Anderle to rule that the EIR itself is faulty, as remedying it would prove far more time-consuming.
For Lee, the ruling couldn’t have come at a worse time. Not only is the housing market in a slump, but the owner of a 4.5-acre property key to the Veronica Meadows development has sought not to renew Lee’s option to purchase. Although Lee sued and prevailed, he secured only a one-year extension, meaning the clock is ticking and even a six-month delay could kill his project.
Because Lee is proposing that City Hall annex his land-which now lies outside the city boundaries-he needs a five-vote supermajority of the seven-member council. Two councilmembers-Helene Schneider and Das Williams-have stated their opposition to any proposed alternatives. The other councilmembers have wavered in their reaction to three separate Veronica Meadows plans over the past year. Mayor Marty Blum, a swing vote on the project, was subdued in her reaction to Anderle’s ruling, commenting, “If he’s saying that we have no choice but to support the Alan Road alternative, then why are we even up here?” But Williams said the ruling gave the council a chance to rectify its past vote. “This is a very clear choice,” he said. “The land isn’t even in the city, so we don’t have any property rights we need to protect. I can’t see any reason to approve building luxury housing on open space. And I intend to persuade my fellow councilmembers of this.”