Last week, the City of Goleta called for construction bids on a $25 million project to improve the San Jose Creek corridor. The work will take what’s currently a concrete channel alongside Highway 217 able to handle 25-year flood events and turning it into a fish-friendly waterway designed to withstand the 100-year storm. In so doing, it will likely remove 200 parcels from the federally listed flood zone, thereby eliminating the need for flood insurance in Old Town Goleta and allowing property owners to improve their lots without the threat of overflowing creeks.
The ambitious project, which was first identified as a community priority in 1998, has been thoroughly supported by every Goleta City Council and involves a laundry list of regulatory agencies, from the feds (Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) to the state (California Department of Fish & Game, California Coastal Commission) to the county (Board of Supervisors, County Flood Control). To proponents of the project, it’s a bureaucratic miracle to think that the work could begin soon, but to a group of business owners that began calling themselves Old Town Goleta Concerned Citizens about two months ago, it’s starting to seem like more of a boondoggle.
“We’re questioning the validity of the project,” said Phil Unander, who owns Larry’s Auto Parts and has been in Old Town since 1981. “Is it really going to work? You have to weigh that against the consequences of the negative effects on businesses in the area.”
Although Unander was a member of the first group to sign off on this idea back in 1998, he never realized how massive an undertaking it would become, and fears that the estimated two-year-long project would create economic impacts to Old Town Goleta — due to increased traffic caused as well as construction-related hassles such as dust and noise — that may actually outweigh the benefits of removing the neighborhood from the federal flood maps. “If we could magically snap our fingers without all of the other economic impacts, I don’t think anyone would be against it at all,” he said. “If it’s really necessary, we’ve got to take our lumps. But if it’s not really necessary?”
Unander is also questioning how much of a flood threat San Jose Creek really is, as he believes the oft-cited floods of the mid-‘90s were caused by debris pileup rather than too much water. “We’re not terrorists. We’re not trying to undermine the system. We’re all flag-waving American citizens,” said Unander, whose concerns are shared by about 25 businesses in the area. “But the more we get involved in it, the more we see these questions.”
It’s a particularly sensitive time to be raising them, and not just because it’s the 11th hour and 59th minute. The project will be funded largely by the City of Goleta’s Redevelopment Agency (RDA), unless Governor Jerry Brown gets his way and dismantles California’s entire RDA system, which is one of his more controversial strategies for fixing the state budget. The idea nearly passed a couple months ago, and the recent rise of controversy in Goleta has caught the attention of Assemblymember Das Williams, who supports Brown’s RDA-scrapping plan.
“It is clear from the meeting that I had with the Old Town Goleta Citizens Concerned group, that many Old Town Goleta business owners and residents are not comfortable with the San Jose Creek Project as it is,” said Williams, who wants to take RDA money and put it back into schools. “My office is researching the current scope of the project, and will continue to investigate it.”
The group has also met with Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian, who represents part of Northern Santa Barbara County. Though the meeting was helpful, Unander said his group failed to change Achadjian’s mind, for the legislator sees RDAs functioning properly in his district. The governor is still pushing for RDA elimination, although opponents are saying that such a move would be contrary to the state constitution as well as the proposition passed last year that blocks the state from taking local funds. Just last week, a legislator from the Salinas area introduced a bill, AB 1250, that attempts to save RDAs by better defining what needs redevelopment, limiting the scope of projects, and kicking more money to schools, but how that would affect Goleta if passed remains to be seen.
As expected, the complaints of Unander and the other Old Town Goleta Concerned Citizens have become thorns in the side of Goleta city staffers, many of whom have been working on this project since the city was incorporated in 2002. “Every single city council that the city has had since incorporation has approved and supported the completion,” said Vyto Adomaitas, the city’s director of redevelopment, neighborhood services, and public safety. “We’re not building a theater. We’re not building auto malls. We’re not building a golf course….If RDA funding goes away, this project will not be built.”
Adomaitis is particularly irked by charges that the city has been moving forward on the project below the radar. “We’re happy to meet with anybody. We’ve been transparent. We’ve been open,” said Adomaitis, who has been talking to the concerned citizens since they formed in March. “So the idea that there’s some sort of conspiracy is really difficult to understand.”
And the need for the project is very real, according to Rosemarie Gaglione, the city’s capital improvement program manager, who said that the engineering for the project meets federal guidelines and that the city has been working hand-in-hand with FEMA to ensure that the redesigned corridor will hold everything Mother Nature can throw at it. “This is a really significant project and it will contain a 100-year storm,” she said.
As well, the city is doing everything it can to accommodate the needs of business owners, said Gaglione, from extra sweeping during the project to providing additional air conditioners or whatever a particular business thinks they need. “We are finding out what people need to be able to go ahead and function,” said Gaglione, who also promised that there would be no pile driving because of business owner fears. “We’re completely committed to working with the business and property owners.”
But despite the city’s promises, the Old Town Goleta Concerned Citizens group shows no sign of letting up. Unander said that he is getting as many people as possible to attend the city council meeting next Tuesday, June 21, and has requested a copy of the project’s California Environmental Quality Act report to see if economic impacts were properly examined. As well, a couple properties closest to the creek project — whose owners have been advised to not speak with the press — are in the middle of negotiations to sell their lots to the city, which can also use the controversial power of eminent domain to take those properties if necessary. Should that happen, the project may be hamstrung by litigation, said Unander.
“We’re shooting every arrow we possibly can,” said Unander. “If we don’t stand up and fight, we could get steamrolled.”