The seemingly unending community debate over what the Eastern Goleta Valley should look like in 20 years jumped a high hurdle last Wednesday, when the County of Santa Barbara Planning Commission approved their version of the plan at the conclusion of the 45th public hearing on the topic, thereby sending it off to the Board of Supervisors for a final decision, tentatively scheduled for February 7, 2012. Though the plan covered everything from noise to public safety, the land use component proved most controversial, as residents argued loudly about preserving farmland, but the commissioners were told by the state to incorporate the potential for high density housing. Last week’s vote preserved 455 of 478 total acres of farmland, but opened 29 total acres to be studied as possible residential development. It also did away with the idea of allowing farmers some secondary uses of their land, such as produce stores, packing facilities, and inns.
But most alarmingly to those following the process, the commissioners’ vote seemed to make it easier to convert Noleta’s ag land into other uses. “It strips tons of protections that were in the 1993 plan,” said Kenan Ezal, who is the vice chair of the Goleta Valley Planning Advisory Committee, which designed the draft of the community plan that the Planning Commission altered over the past seven meetings. Specifically, the old plan forced the county to make “findings” that the proposed conversion was necessary, but the new one simply says that ag land should be preserved “to the greatest extent feasible.” Explained Ezal, “There was no rationale put forth as to why the findings part was taken out. I’m concerned about that process. That’s precisely why people are so mistrustful of county staff … . These kinds of recommendations occur literally overnight.” He would have preferred that the county addressed those type of language changes as well as the late demand for new housing through the GVPAC process. “It’s a very different policy now,” he said.
Barb Kloos, who founded the Eastern Goleta Valley Coalition to better protect these ag lands, was also less than satisifed with the vote, explaining that her organization’s campaign of letter writing, public commenting, and meeting with county staff and elected officials really just amounted to “damage control.” Said Kloos, “If we had not turned out en masse to do what we did, we would have probably been looking at 50 to 100 more acres that they would have studied for high density housing … . It was just a bloody battle.” She believes that county staff are pushing for smart growth principles that just don’t fit with the Eastern Goleta Valley’s semi-rural settng. “They are just trying to cram that into our area and force it down our throats,” said Kloos, who is planning to meet with every supervisor before the board votes next year.
Also on the list of disappointed and frustrated Noleta-ites is Valerie Olson, who spent more than half a decade working on elements of the plan and, as the chair of the GVPAC, went to 150 meetings and put in at least 3,000 hours. She resigned on Wednesday from the committee, in part due to seeing much of her committee’s work scrapped. “There are a lot of sane people who are very upset,” said Olson, but she believes that 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf might save the day. “Janet’s done a lot of really good work for our community, especially with her stands on environmental issues, and I really appreciate that. I’m hoping with that kind of record of working with the community that she will get to addressing this subject, which is very complex and difficult, especially the agricultural protection issues.” As to having many of the GVPAC’s recommendations tossed aside, Olson explained, “The law says you have to have an advisory committee. It doesn’t say you have to take their advice.”
But the concerns of Eastern Goleta Valley residents seem a bit over-the-top to county staffers such as Jeff Hunt, the director of Long Range Planning who’s been following this process for almost a year now. “I think the commission’s recommendations reflect a balance between preserving neighborhood character by protecting open space versus providing for affordable housing for the families and workers of our community,” said Hunt, who explained that the commission’s changes to the plan were about modernizing the language, making it consistent with other county policies, and fixing the misperception that such plans could block zoning conversions, because the supervisors could convert ag land to housing despite the stronger sounding 1993 language. Citing one example about new guidelines that allow moving the urban limit line only if current land inventories are inadequate, Hunt explained, “This new policy direction sets an accurate expectation and is an accepted tool to manage growth — not prevent it.”