The Board of Supervisors will meet on Tuesday, February 21 to discuss and vote on the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Plan, which has not been updated for 19 years.
It has been a long and contentious battle for the residents of the Valley trying to retain the quality of our semi-rural and suburban community, which values agricultural land, horse and bike trails, open space and careful, modest growth. The community has been criticized for valuing these things while developers, housing advocates, and planners have pushed forward with their agenda, with little regard for the vast majority of citizens who have invested their lives here. Wherever there was land, the push has been to “infill” it with cement, people, and cars.
By building three- and four-story cement cities along Hollister and Calle Real, the belief is that everyone will suddenly change their California lifestyle, and feel compelled to hop on a bus or bike to downtown Santa Barbara, while gas emissions vanish with the wind. It’s no wonder that the community has not been very excited about the Plan.
Despite the continual obstacles thrown in our path, a number of us in the community have hung in during this chaotic process, to try and influence the outcome of development here over the next 20 years. In the end, the community will give up 30 acres for high density housing, including some land zoned for agriculture. The Plan opens the door to pack approximately 650 high-density new dwelling units into less than a square mile, right in the center of the region that already has the largest amount of affordable housing per capita in the county.
It’s becoming apparent how absurd the NIMBY [“not in my back yard”] label has become in light of what’s really going on. This is a phony term the special-interest housing groups have tried to brand us with because we actually have normal sensibilities about the community that 36,000 people call home. I guess the NIMBY-phobes think responsible residents should abdicate their common sense, and turn over their community to developers.
Just when all seemed fairly calm, and the Community Plan was making its way to the Supervisors, an outside agency, the California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA) mysteriously got involved. Their normal mission is to strive for economic justice and human rights on behalf of California’s rural poor. This group showed no visible interest during the months-long public process of the Community Plan’s development. Then, suddenly, they took an unusually intense interest in two large sites proposed for rezoning.
One wonders what a few acres in the middle of a residential community have to do with the “rural poor” charter of the CRLA? The CRLA soon felt “compelled” to contact the State Housing authorities in Sacramento to tattle on the County over how land-use was being calculated. Again, not exactly the specialty of the CRLA in a place like the Eastern Goleta Valley (EGV). Curiously, this is the exact same scenario that took place last July when Montecito developer Michael Towbes went behind the back of our county officials by directly contacting the state. He attempted to alter the direction of the Planning Commission after he learned that a property of interest to him (San Marcos Growers) was not being considered for development. Were it not for a strong outcry from the community, we may have been forced into converting even more large parcels of agricultural land into mass apartment buildings. (The correspondence referred to above is public information.)
Apparently, the way the county officials calculated density, which is completely legal, did not yield the tenement-like feel that Towbes, the CRLA, and others seek, even though a stunning 650 new units are being proposed. Their goal is to add even more acreage, density, and cement to the Eastern Goleta Valley. Can these forces ever really be satisfied? Just look around California for your answer. Needless to say, it is of the utmost offense to the residents of the EGV, when outsiders try to dictate development and override the good sense of the people who actually live here.
The CRLA’s letter started out as if the group were genuinely concerned about adding more housing to the two large sites. But a few paragraphs into their letter, its real motive for getting involved surfaced: “It is apparent that the County is making every effort to avoid rezoning excellent sites ….” The “excellent site” they are referring to is San Marcos Growers (next to Vons), one of the last large open spaces in the heart of the Valley that would be a huge financial windfall for Towbes if developed. Wow, in another amazing coincidence, the CRLA is now in the business of recommending particular building sites on behalf of developers. Clearly, Towbes and the CRLA are trying to circumvent the very Community Plan that has taken years and thousands of community volunteer hours to develop.
Does it even occur to these few special interest entities that perhaps the Planning Commission and the County really did consider what the impact of developing San Marcos Growers would be, and that they concluded that it would not be a good benefit to the community? Maybe they actually did listen to the neighbors and residents of the valley as they weighed in on the pros and cons (all cons) of developing this site. Bottom line: Those who live here are quite certain that trading prime, active agricultural land in the center of our valley for apartment buildings diminishes the entire region, while only serving the self-interest of a few.
Can Towbes and the Hodges family (owners of San Marcos Growers) graciously bow out and respect the obvious wishes of an entire community? (Consider the generosity of the Girsch family, who built an enormous sports complex to enrich the City of Goleta.) Can [the Hodges] be content with their successful ag business and let the vast majority of the long-term EGV residents be the ones who shape the future here?
It should be noted that this entire episode is very similar to the recent Bishop Ranch situation, in which the Goleta citizens and Council members soundly rejected large-scale, outside development. EGV residents are of exactly the same mind.
We have been fed the “affordable housing” rhetoric for years. The most recent “affordable” development in our valley, Sumida Gardens, started out to be 100% affordable units, then 50%, but finally yielded only 3% of the units for low income renters and 14% for moderate income renters. That means that 83% of the units are at – cha-ching – market rate!!! Additionally, the developer, Mr. Towbes, was given $10 million of our tax money to build these few affordable units. It’s time to take a hard look at the misleading model of building large quantities of housing in order to net a few affordable units, as well as all the pro-development, anti-community propaganda that goes with it.
On Tuesday, the County received a letter from the State in response to the CRLA letter. The State seems to be waffling on its prior approval of the way densities area calculated. This leaves the community wondering how the County will respond. Will the Community Plan go forward as the commissioners recommended, or will there be last-minute changes without community input? With less than a week left before the County Supervisors see the plan, and with the public process winding down, this is clearly not a prudent way to lay the foundation for the next 20 years of growth.
This process has left a lot of people disillusioned at the absence of “community” in the “Community Plan.” We can’t find ourselves anywhere in it! LOTS of dense housing with no parks, no public amenities, no improvements, no beautification projects, and of course, the status quo on the traffic medians that we’ve come to know and love as “Round-Up Landscaping.” Over the last 20 years, in the area around San Marcos High School, the County has planted one median with the cheapest offering of plants imaginable. Yet there always seems to be such zeal to over-develop our communities with more compact apartments, new traffic signals, increased gridlock, and the many other glories of urbanization.
It’s not quite the end of the road, as the Supervisors’ vote is still on the horizon, perhaps to come in as early as next Tuesday. There’s just the sobering and disheartening awareness that the real people, the taxpayers, the voters, the residents of our lovely communities and neighborhoods that make Santa Barbara a great place, don’t have the primary voice they should in determining the outcome of their own community. We’re now subject to the votes of the five County Supervisors to shape the Eastern Goleta Valley for the coming decades. Will it be undesirable, “smart growth” urbanization, or a continuation of the open, semi-rural feel that characterizes our valley?
We’re certainly looking to our supervisor, Janet Wolf, to protect our neighborhoods, deliver a good ending to this long, grueling process, and to be a strong voice to the other supervisors on behalf of the majority of the Eastern Goleta Valley residents.
Barbara Kloos is a member of the Eastern Goleta Valley Coalition.