A day after a California Court of Appeal panel heard oral arguments from opponents of Westmont College’s Master Plan, school officials broke ground on the first phase of campus construction, which is expected to add roughly 166,000 square feet of new buildings to the campus in less than three years.
Barry Cappello, attorney for Concerned Citizens over Westmont Expansion, argued his case in front of the three-judge panel gathered in the Board of Supervisors room Wednesday, the one day this year the Court of Appeal will make a trip to Santa Barbara to hear cases. While the college has updated its Master Plan four times since 1964, the concerned citizens group is arguing that, of the approximately 345,000 square foot expansion project decided upon in the most recent update, only 145,000 of it has been subjected to environmental review over the years, violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
These opponents have appealed a December 2007 decision by Judge Thomas Anderle in which he opined that the analysis of the environmental impact report (EIR) was exhaustive and supported by substantial evidence and that the project was consistent with the Montecito Community Plan. He denied the petition by the neighbors.
Opponents’ argument is that the county included the 200,000 square feet in its CEQA baseline analysis even though none of it currently exists on campus or has gone under environmental review. The no build alternative, a CEQA requirement which assumes no project is approved, uses the same inclusion, according to Troy Thielemann, a partner of Cappello’s. “Unfortunately, I think this document fails and I think their argument fails,” Cappello said in front of the panel. County Counsel and attorneys for Westmont say the final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report that went along with the approved 2006 plan was adequate. “The county complied with CEQA standards,” said Deputy County Counsel Rachel Van Mullem.
The decision from the Court of Appeal is expected to come back before its 90-day window is up.
Regardless, the Christian liberal arts college pressed on with a groundbreaking ceremony for its first phase of construction, the first building on campus in 24 years. Four major facilities will be built during the first phase, including a chapel and a residence hall. The plan was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in February, and the neighbors filed the lawsuit in March.
The Westmont campus was abuzz Thursday as faculty, staff, students, and friends of the college celebrated at a groundbreaking ceremony signaling the beginning of construction.
President Gayle Beebe began the ceremony as he addressed an audience that spilled into the walkways of Porter Theatre, the site where the Adams Center for the Visual Arts - one of the two new facilities slated for construction immediately - will be built. Campus Planner Randy Jones followed with an overview of the improved campus, including relocated roads, updated athletic facilities, a cutting-edge observatory, new student housing, and a new chapel for worship and musical performances. Jones emphasized the green roofs and natural ventilation that will be incorporated into many of the new buildings as well as the underground design that will keep structures low and unobtrusive.
As she watched the arts faculty with gold shovels in hand, Westmont student Sarah Coburn, 21, expressed her enthusiasm for the expansion. “I’m really excited about it,” she said. “Even though I won’t be able to experience it, because I am a junior, I’ve seen the need growing since I’ve been here.” Chemistry professor Stan Anderson agreed. “This is something that will add to student’s life on campus and will connect students and faculty,” Anderson said.
When asked about local opposition to the construction, Scott Craig, Westmont’s manager of media relations, explained that there have been a handful of opponents who have been vocal against the project since the beginning. In response, he said, Westmont held hundreds of community meetings to listen to opponents’ concerns and has changed its development plans accordingly. Craig cited moving buildings closer to the center of campus, lowering building heights, and reducing total construction by more than 20,000 square feet as examples of modifications made to appease upset neighbors.
Beebe continued the ceremonies by dedicating the second building site-slated to be the new science and mathematics facility-to Dr. David Winter, longtime past president and chancellor of Westmont. “I feel tremendously pleased,” he said after the ceremony. “The expansion will be an asset not just for Westmont itself but for the Montecito and Santa Barbara communities as well.”