WEATHER »

Garden’s Burning Issue


Getting Out Alive: As an experienced land use professional and 38-year resident of Mission Canyon, I was appalled to receive a glossy brochure from the Botanic Garden which falsely implies that the County Fire Department has determined that the Vital Mission Plan “will be an improvement to fire safety in Mission Canyon.”

FACT: The Garden’s PR fails to disclose that it seeks approval of 110,000 visitors per year in the first year, and growth to 165,000 visitors per year, concentrated at events and rentals inappropriate for a box canyon in an extreme high fire zone. This increased intensity of use of the property will make an existing evacuation-route deficiency worse. The Planning Commission’s mitigation measures just do not address this problem.

FACT: The County Fire Department has told us that they have not yet reviewed the Garden’s construction plans, or decided what conditions to impose. I sat in a meeting with Chief Dyer and his staff on April 7, and I wish I could portray in words the looks on their faces when we showed them the Garden’s PR brochure asserting that County Fire is satisfied that the canyon will be safer with the project than without it.

This dispute is not about research, conservation, or display of plants. It’s about residents getting out alive in the next fire. The Mission Canyon Association—which has been working diligently with the county on fire safety issues for decades—has asked for very specific permit revisions that can mitigate the fire-evacuation impacts and still allow the project to go forward. I support their appeal as a common sense and fair resolution.—Jana Zimmer

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Modest and Beautiful Plan for Cherished Place:The Botanic Garden is a cherished place to go birding, botanizing, or to walk in quiet beauty. Plein air artists like myself enjoy painting by the meadow. Previously I taught Chumash basketry classes at the Garden and can vouch for the fact that the classrooms, labs, library, herbarium, and other facilities are sorely insufficient for the magnificent work being done in education, research, conservation and horticulture. For decades there has been a drastic need for upgraded facilities. Everyone who knows and loves the Garden would agree.

Yet there has been great controversy about the Vital Mission Plan. The other day I went to look at the actual plan. In fact, it’s modest and beautiful. The new buildings will be set into the natural contours of the land, in the same area as the present buildings. The land slopes downward, minimizing the visual impact. The architecture is green, using sandstone. What could be more natural? The new square footage is be 25,180 square feet, counting second stories. The total footprint comes to about 19,000 square feet, tucked into 1% of the Garden’s 65 acres. The new entrance area designed by Isabelle Green will not intrude on the meadow but will lead to a majestic view with the mountains in the distance. The restrooms will be moved away from the meadow and the kiosk removed.

Why all the fuss? About twenty years ago Barry Berkus designed an elegant proposal two to three times the size of the current plan. This was followed by another ambitious proposal. Neither went forward, but both scared the neighbors, who apparently are still reacting. What the opponents are decrying is more like the fancy Berkus design. I encourage any opponent to go look at the actual plan for yourself.

While I was there, a woman asked where the Meadow Terrace was. She’d heard about how big, ugly, and intrusive it was and wanted to see for herself, but couldn’t find it. Imagine her surprise when she found out she’d already been there – the Meadow Terrace is just a fairly level open space with knee-high sandstone curbing. It’s beyond the Blaksley boulder where in the old days folks would drive their cars to fundraising picnics. The Garden has historic photographs showing the autos parked in the meadow. According to testimony, Lockwood de Forest was “picnic chairman.” So this is a historically appropriate place to set picnic tables.

The most controversial part of the plan is the pavers. Yet in America, disabled persons have the right of basic access to public places. The pavers make the pathways more accessible and practical for persons with wheelchairs and walkers, families with babies in strollers, school children, the elderly, docents, volunteers, and all who will benefit from an all-weather walking surface. The pavers were chosen to resemble natural stone, to be water-permeable, long-wearing, easily removable, and easy to maintain. Decomposed granite gets rutted by wheels and rainwater and is labor-intensive to maintain.

The most emotional opposition has come from a few who have used fear of fire to inflame their neighbors. However, the County Fire Department has determined that the plan will actually increase fire safety. There will be a new fire truck turnaround, fire hydrants, sprinklers, and closure of the Garden on high fire-danger days.

The Vital Mission Plan has been approved by the Planning Commission and the Historic Landmarks Advisory Committee, with over one hundred conditions. The Garden has compromised extensively. What is left is truly the bare bones, the minimum needed for the Garden to fulfill its important mission in this time of climate change and endangered flora. The Vital Mission Plan should be upheld by the Board of Supervisors and the appeals denied. Then we can all relax and enjoy the Garden together.—Anna Campbell

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Not Just a Neighborhood Park: Most of us who live in Santa Barbara County support the Botanic Garden’s Vital Mission Plan—except for a small minority, mostly residents of the Mission Canyon area, which has slowed the approval process through appeals based on false accusations.

Opponents claim the plan will increase fire risks. I am not downplaying the fact that Mission Canyon is a high-risk fire area. Quite the opposite: In looking at the past few years, it’s clear that improved fire safety in Mission Canyon is desperately needed. The Vital Mission Plan includes sprinkler installation, fire-truck turnarounds, fire-resistant building materials, an improved evacuation plan and drills, improved emergency water access, and waterline improvements. The County Fire Department has publicly stated that these projects will seriously reduce fire danger and decrease response time. Who better to know about fire safety than the fire department?

Second, concern has been raised that the plan will destroy the Garden’s significance as an historical landmark. Are those who make such claims unaware of the Garden’s true mission? It is not just a pretty park in a residential area. Long before it was surrounded by houses, the Garden was established as a research, education, and conservation center, to preserve open space and to study California ecosystems and plants. It is accredited by the American Association of Museums as one of only 30 “living museums” in the nation. The Vital Mission Plan seeks to preserve this function. It proposes an additional 25,800 square feet of new facilities—half the size of a football field—to be constructed within the footprint of existing buildings. The objections are groundless; they are really only complaints from Mission Canyon residents who fear that their quiet neighborhood “park” will no longer be purely theirs to enjoy.—Kristina Keeler

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Why Cross Road? On April 18 I received this email from a neighbor, Dr. John Minch. It regards the natural and traditional wildlife corridor between Mission Creek and a tributary of Rattlesnake Creek, in Mission Canyon. Dr. Minch happens to be a specialist in environmental services. [This email is published with his permission.] The fence he refers to is part of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s Vital Mission Plan.

This morning the wild turkeys were in the area. Three of them tried to cross Mission Canyon Road in front of the house. They came up against the fence and became confused. Cars were swerving to avoid them as the two toms stood in the middle of the road and the hen ran up and down along the fence. (They are afraid of nothing.) I had to stop traffic and herd the flock to a safe place. The fence caused a dangerous situation for both turkeys and cars as well as me and one other pedestrian.”—Francesca Galt

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David v. Goliath Have you followed the David vs. Goliath match up in Mission Canyon? The deep-pocketed Botanic Garden seems to have endless supplies of cash for lawyers, slick brochures, paid petition gatherers and paid phone-bankers attempting to generate support for a major building remodel and expansion project.

Meanwhile, neighbors and ordinary folks who do not want the Botanic Garden turned into a night-and-day event center and fire trap must rely on what they can scrape together. The Botanic Garden survey coyly asks respondents if they support replacement of buildings destroyed in the Jesusita Fire. This cagey question makes no mention of the proposed gigantic expansion. The correct question addressed to the public should be “Do you support more buildings, more traffic, busloads of people, and amplified private parties at the Botanic Garden?” I believe the prevailing answer would be a resounding “No!”

The beautiful Santa Barbara Botanic Garden will surely survive and prosper if the expansion plan is not approved. Of course the Garden should be able to rebuild burned structures, but it is the danger of fire itself that is a compelling reason for a much more moderate and creative plan to improve and sustain the Garden’s function. On May 4 our County Board of Supervisors should not approve this costly boondoggle, and should demand a project better suited to a fire-prone, residential box canyon.—Kevin Snow

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Save Jewel: This is in response to the well financed ad campaign by the administration of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Most want to save this Santa Barbara jewel, not “destroy decades of hard work” or “define a bleak future” as their mass mailing letter suggested.

None of the fire losses to the Botanic Garden are even remotely connected with their Vital Mission Plan, or more accurately, Building Expansion Project. The Gane House was not even habitable before the fire. Yes, they need to rebuild green houses and replace lost equipment. But their proposal is for paving trails, creating event centers in the meadow, cluttering the garden with art objects, and expanding research areas and classrooms appropriate for a school, not a garden.

The increased attendance puts the whole community at risk in the event of fire. Putting an extra 300 people and their vehicles in a box canyon courts disaster.

And the concept that the Garden is a fire-break is laughable to anyone who witnessed the Jesusita fire.

Please help save the Botanic Garden , not destroy it.—Ann Sykes

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Outsourcing Community Outreach: Yesterday my phone rang and it was a gentleman urging me to attend the hearing before the Board of Supervisors on May 4 to help the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden recover from the fire. I informed him that the Botanic Garden has insurance to cover the fire damage. “You didn’t know that?” I asked. After a long silence he replied, “I don’t know anything about insurance. I’m from Wisconsin.” I told him that the hearing on May 4 has nothing to do with the fire. It’s about the massive expansion plan that is on appeal before the Board of Supervisors. He indicated that he was just doing what he was being paid to do. Another neighbor received a similar call from someone in Minnesota. Others have been approached by paid signature gatherers asking unsuspecting citizens if they are in favor of improving fire safety in Mission Canyon, when the petition was actually in support of the expansion plan. If the Botanic Garden expansion plan is so noble and the Garden management is so sincere and upstanding, why do they find it necessary to stoop to such unscrupulous and dishonest tactics? I don’t get it.—Stephen Sherrill

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False Drama: The current dramatic TV ads, the literature, equally dramatic, mailed out, plus phone calls—all urging support for the Garden’s Vital Mission Plan—misrepresent what really is happening. The Jesusita Fire is one year old, whereas the vital mission plan was conceived and created more than five years ago. The two items are quite separate. I must say I have lost all respect for the powers-that-be at the Garden in their promoting the two as one.

I believe there was fire insurance and that a payment has been made for those “damages.” Yet I see no attempt to rebuild the Campbell Bridge, replace benches destroyed, nor restore trails still closed.

I am not against change, but the Vital Mission Plan is too big and broad for this particular landscape, especially the meadow and its immediate surroundings, which are of historical importance. The meadow terrace project, the paving of trails, a new entrance—all these are not essential and take away from the beauty of the whole, namely the natural landscape with an emphasis on only native California plants and trees. The meadow proper was once the crowning glory of the Garden, drawing visitors and guests from all over the world.

Surely, the vital mission plan is not vital any more. It needs to be seen with new eyes, hearts, and minds.—Bettina T. Barrett

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