After four full-day hearings over the past three months, the controversial plan to expand the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden cleared a significant hurdle on Monday, October 26, when the County of Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission voted 3-2 to approve the project, albeit with a number of conditions. The vote left the garden’s proponents excited about moving forward on a project that’s taken more than five years of plotting, but deeply frustrated opponents and concerned neighbors in Mission Canyon, who are almost certain to appeal the project to the Board of Supervisors.
“We’re obviously grateful for the Planning Commission approval of the Vital Mission Plan,” said garden spokesperson Nancy Johnson. “Really, they validated more than a decade of work that went into creating this bare-bones plan that we feel has responded very well to the community and allowed us to fulfill our mission. Certainly, there are a number of conditions, some of which we volunteered and some of which we feel are a little restrictive, but we’re still excited about the vote and the process of beginning to be built, especially since the Jesusita Fire has destroyed so much that is here.”
Among other conditions, the request to build a kiosk on an eastern ridgeline was denied; events with more than 80 people were limited to three per month; overall attendance can grow by 1.8 percent a year up to 50 percent total, which amounts to a rise from the current 110,000 annual visitors to 160,000; and trail pavers may only be used on 10 percent of the property, not including those paths adjacent to buildings. Johnson called some of the limitations “disappointing,” but admitted that “we can manage with them.”
Attorney Marc Chytilo, who represents opposition group Friends of Mission Canyon, was frustrated and said that it’s “highly likely” the vote will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. “They just didn’t look at so many different issues we identified,” he said. “I’d say they addressed about half of them.”
Chytilo specifically criticized 1st District Commissioner Michael Cooney, who wound up being the swing vote, for bending too much to the garden’s desires. “He went with whatever the garden said is okay,” claimed Chytilo. “He felt the need to explain himself to the Botanic Garden but he did not apparently feel the need to give a similar explanation to the residents and community as to why such a large expansion was consistent with Mission Canyon’s severe resource constraints.”
Overall, said Chytilo, “It is going to result, if it stands, in a substantial increase in visitation and the commercialization of the garden.”
Cooney, meanwhile, admits that he “absolutely” found himself in odd political company on the vote by siding with the two North County commissioners, Joe Valencia and Daniel Blough, who are typically more development-friendly. In approving the project, Cooney - whose district includes the Botanic Garden - voted against his usual conservation-minded comrades, 2nd District Commissioner Cecilia Brown, who was opposed to the bulk of the project from the get-go, and 3rd District Commissioner Marell Brooks, who voted to conceptually approve the project in early September and then changed her vote on Monday without any public explanation.
“This is the single most controversial project that I have seen in my five-plus years on the commission,” said Cooney. “There’s no doubt that passions run strong on both sides - there were merits in the concerns of the neighborhood and merits in the need of the Botanic Garden to refurbish their facilities and continue doing what they have been doing.”
Cooney, who, like everyone else, always anticipated that this project would eventually be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, stands behind his vote. “On balance, it’s a workable plan if you condition it like we did,” said Cooney. “I think either way, nobody was going to be happy.”
Despite the vast range of contentions on Monday, there seemed to be a unanimous feeling of surprise at Monday’s meeting when County Fire’s Glenn Fidler announced that his department would no longer be issuing red flag alerts, and that responsibility was now going to be handled by the National Weather Service. This announcement came up due to the concerns that increased usage of the Botanic Garden - which is currently mandated to close on red flag days - could create unsafe conditions during a wildfire, but its implications go far beyond this one project.
On that, both Chytilo and Cooney agreed. “That was concerning,” said Cooney, “because we look to the fire department not only to guide us on our activities but to be the monitor for determining when the red flag alerts are called. That was brand new and surprising.” Chytilo concurred, “That is just an enormous change.”
Calls to County Fire were not returned in time for this article, but stayed tuned to independent.com for more.