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Life in the Unincorporated Zone

Not Just Another Link in the Chain


A few months back, my editor sent me a link to the Carpinteria City Council’s online agenda with a somewhat cryptic “Have you seen this?” message. Wondering if I had missed some important issue that I ought to know about (stray dogs! spay/neuter!), I responded, “No, why?” (I also figured this was her way of hinting that I ought to write more about Summerland-area issues, given the name of this column.) In her reply, I got treated to an interesting perspective on the whole issue of living in a little — town? community? something — with an independent identity but no governing power.

The gist of my editor’s follow up emails was this: Why doesn’t Summerland join Carpinteria? I think she was thinking along the lines of those who live in Noleta but would like to attach themselves to Goleta for the presumptive benefits that accrue from being part of a city. Which led me to wonder: What are those benefits, if any?

Lee Heller

Summerland in its current configuration is … well, I’m not sure what it is. We are definitely in unincorporated Santa Barbara County — like numerous other areas without names, and some others that have names but no separate municipal codes or city councils. (Los Olivos and Los Alamos fall into this category, too, as does that part of Montecito that isn’t inside the Santa Barbara city limits.) Summerland is part of the Carpinteria-Summerland School District, but the Montecito Water District. We have a Board of Architectural Review, but it’s advisory only. And we have our quirky little Summerland Citizens Association — but it’s a dues-based membership organization with absolutely no binding governing power over anything other than hosting various potlucks and inviting various officials to come speak about Summerland-related things from freeway expansion to recreational use of Lookout Park.

I suppose Summerland could incorporate on its own, as Goleta finally did. But once you do that, you have to have your own government, laws, and services. That’s not very sustainable for a small community. It’s just not worth the work, if you have a county to do it for you.

On the other hand, cities and townships do have the power to make their own rules — and sometimes that means different (and better) rules than everyone else around you has. For example, the City of Carpinteria recently passed a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags — and at long last, it looks as if the City of Santa Barbara will do the same. I find myself periodically showing up at Santa Barbara City Council meetings to lobby on issues like the plastic bag ban because, even though I don’t vote in Santa Barbara, much of my life is spent there and its policies are important to me. Though I have yet to attend a Carp City Council meeting, I knocked on doors and held signs to help defeat Measure J (which would have allowed Venoco to put up a 140-foot drilling rig next to Carpinteria City Hall to slant drill out to sea for oil). What happens in nearby cities does affect those who live outside their limits — and having a smaller, manageably sized government system to deal with means you can have a real impact.

Still, all in all, I’m pretty happy to be in a little town/community/whatever that is both independent and without governance. If we were attached to Carp or Santa Barbara, well, yes, I’d get to vote in their council elections, but then I’d also have the burden of attending their council meetings more often. Even worse, people would keep pressuring me to run for office — a job for which I am singularly unsuited, not being a masochist.

Santa Barbara County is small enough that its government is responsive. I’ve met with every Supervisor and the CEO, know several department heads, and am confident that my voice is heard, even if it is just one among 400,000. That’s good enough for me.

As for Summerland as an entity: Well, you notice that I don’t write much about Summerland issues because there simply aren’t that many. New sidewalks and slant parking? Hardly worth a paragraph, much less an entire column. No, I kind of like it that Summerland is in its own limbo of nothingness, governance-wise. Like our post-office-only mail delivery, it makes us a little different, a little less of a link in the chain.

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