On August 5, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden takes its “Vital Mission Plan” to the County of Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission for the next step in a process of review and debate that’s already taken nearly four years.
As a proposal to add an additional 25,000 square feet of development to the 78-acre property, the plan has drawn a number of critics, from neighbors concerned about fire safety and history buffs worried about changes to the landmark-protected meadow to everyday Garden lovers who feel that the plan marks a departure from the Garden’s historic mission.
In anticipation of this presentation, The Independent‘s Matt Kettmann asked some questions of the Garden’s director Ed Schneider, and he responded this week via email. Here is an edited transcript of that email exchange.
If it can be agreed that the Garden needs to grow in some fashion, the plan seems to be a reasonable proposal.
Grow is an interesting word, as some of the earlier proposals were about growth. Yet this plan is simply about carrying out our mission of plant conservation, research, education, and display. This plan leaves the Garden 99 percent open space.
It is no surprise that there are “No Significant Impacts” with our plan according to the three-year, exhaustive Environmental Impact Report because the plan simply allows us to do what we do today better, not bigger. The plan allows us to plant, store herbarium specimens, store our library books, store equipment, allow school and scientific visits, and provide adequate space for laboratory research. In addition, it allows us to add a few small homes for staff as affordable housing.
We are not creating space for more visitors or events. We are adding less than 25,000 square feet of Garden buildings to 78 acres. Compared to the construction of new homes in Mission Canyon and additions to existing homes, this is a very modest amount of space.
This is as far from a growth plan - this plan allows us to simply carry out our mission. That is why we call it the Vital Mission Plan.
What would happen to the Garden if the Vital Mission Plan is not allowed to go forward? In other words, why is this necessary now?
The Jesusita Fire makes it imperative that we rebuild. We lost key buildings and facilities for growing and storing young plants.
Without the Vital Mission Plan, we cannot carry out our Vital Mission - it’s that simple. We have added more and more open space to the Garden over the past seven decades, but not the facilities to care for them.
That is why we need place to store equipment, our growing seed bank, and plants we are studying. This makes up more than one-third of the proposed new square footage.
In addition, our herbarium is full (an herbarium is where we catalog and store dry plants), and we need a building with the right climate and storage system to ensure we have records of plants, some of which are endangered or extinct. Recently a plant was found that was thought to be extinct. Thanks to our herbarium, we were able to identify it.
As any research institution, we have an extensive book collection. Today we have no room in our existing library with many books stored in boxes as we have not increased our library space in decades.
More than a quarter of the new square footage is for indoor and outdoor collections.
Each year school children visit the Garden. They learn about plants and their role on Earth, and they learn about climate change first hand, not through a video or a book. They look at plants and plant cells through powerful microscopes and then go out into the Garden and see them alive.
Many of these students are inspired and become conservationist and environmental leaders. In addition, scientists from around the world visit the Garden to learn about California natives. Local gardeners take classes, and home gardeners learn zeroscape landscaping and other techniques.
Today we do not have the room to conduct these education programs as well as we should. About a quarter of the new square footage is for education.
Our research staff, garden staff, and administrative staff today work in an unproductive small space. After the rebuild of the Gane House, which was lost to fire, less than 1,000 additional square feet are for staff, volunteer, and visitor-serving space.
The reason there are no significant environmental impacts is because we are adding a very small about of space for very low impact use. It would be like a private home adding a plant shed and a place to store lawnmowers, or a 20- or 40-year-old home adding modern closets and bathrooms, and maybe a study, but not building a second unit.
What do you say to critics who complain that the Vital Mission Plan, and your administration specifically, is moving away from the Garden’s original mission?
As explained above, this is all about carrying out our mission, of plant conservation, research, education, and display. Our mission was well-stated in 1927: “It is the aim of the Garden Committee to so unite the aesthetic, educational, and scientific that this Garden will hold a unique place in the horticultural world.”
Our mission today is unchanged. Some like to think of the Garden as a private nature preserve or a neighborhood park, but this never has been our mission.
Do you believe that the Garden has played nice enough with the neighbors and upheld its end of the deal to be a good neighbor?
One can never do enough to be a good neighbor. Since 1999 we have proposed plans and presented to our neighbors. We have listened and changed and refined the plans as a result.
Each time there has been a group of neighbors who want more reductions. We have now eliminated every thing we can eliminate. Until this plan, we never submitted a final plan for review by the county. Looking at past plans, this plan represents a huge reduction.
Being a good neighbor goes both ways. We are proud of the dozens of neighbors who have stepped up as supporters of our plan in the face of critical attacks by the small group that is still opposed.
As we spent a decade and a lot of funds listening and changing and rechanging and rechanging our plans in response to those opposed, they have not appreciated or even understood our need for the very basic plan we propose today.
I guess the fire hydrants fit this behavior the best. As part of the Vital Mission Plan we have proposed a myriad of fire protection measures. Six new fire hydrants were included in the original submittal, yet we determined about 18 months ago that we did not want to tempt fate without the protection of the hydrants. It seemed like a no-brainer to move ahead with those right away.
Yet the very same group that remains opposed to the Garden Vital Mission Plan opposed the hydrants, costing the Garden tens of thousands of dollars in legal and engineering costs. Fortunately, the Garden prevailed and those very six hydrants allowed us to save the landscaped section of the Garden, including the seed bank and other important buildings. Others feel that stopping the fire at the Garden protected much of Mission Canyon.
If the opposition by this group is legitimate, we question why they would oppose hydrants? And why would they oppose the bare bones plan they have asked us for over the past decade.
There is a need for give and take, we have given and given and those who remain opposed have taken and taken. It needs to be two-way.
A common complaint I hear is that there used to be more Gardeners than well-paid executives at the Garden. What do you say to that?
This is not true. The Garden is run by a skeleton staff of four executives. Like every non-profit, the recession has hit us hard, but we have not laid off a single gardener.
How many more special events are expected each year, and how much larger will those special events be than in the past?
Presently there’s no limit on special event. With the vital mision plan, there will be limits in place for the first time. There will be neither more nor larger special events than in the past.
For more Botanic Garden coverage, see independent.com/bg