A real estate management company will put Santa Barbara County on the witness stand on January 23, the culmination of frustration over a change in zoning policy.
Sandwiched between the 101 and the rumble of Amtrak trains, the Bowtie corridor is in an unincorporated part of the county, home to dozens of small, local service businesses like auto repair shops, car rentals, and warehouses. This is where Hollister Avenue turns into State Street between Auhay Drive and just past the entrance to Highway 154.
In 2015, an amendment to the mixed-use ordinance and its application to the Bowtie corridor changed its zoning from commercial (C1) to mixed-use (MU). This rendered some businesses in the area “legally nonconforming,” uses not approved under the MU designation.
The area should be “attractive, safe, and pedestrian-oriented,” but in the plan, the county wrote that the Bowtie corridor was “incongruous” in its design and lacked sufficient parking facilities. Mixed-use zoning, if argued, would be one way to achieve the goal of improving the area. Business owners say the rezoning has stifled their growth and may eventually drive them out of the area.
Zoom Properties LLC, which owns a parcel of land on the 4100 block of State Street, is suing to get the county to walk back the change and plan a more inclusive property for the ventures already out there. In the county’s vision to reclaim “an ageing commercial corridor,” people with Zoom said that it only stifled potential residential and commercial growth.
“People want to see jobs and services that are part of the community continue,” said Andrew Rice, a spokesperson for Zoom Properties LLC. “It’s an important part of the fabric of the Santa Barbara and Goleta community.”
One factor was what Zoom Properties LLC owner Russell Steiner saw as a failure to give proper notice on the development of the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Plan, which includes the amendment. The county’s website says the “Goleta Valley Planning Advisory Committee (GVPAC) held 39 public meetings, five plan review subcommittee public meetings, two public workshops, and one public van tour, to develop and review a draft community plan for the Eastern Goleta Valley.”
Business owners may have been notified that there was a public meeting but were not otherwise given additional information about how the zoning policy would affect them. Steiner said it was not until he talked to a Realtor for a nearby property that he found out about the zoning change. The previous owner of the land Zoom Properties sits on didn’t know.
Steiner and others attended the October 2015 public hearing to voice concerns, but the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve the Eastern Goleta Valley Community Plan. “At the end of the day, we should be extremely reluctant to take … value out of our neighbors’ property,” dissenting Supervisor Peter Adam said at the meeting.
A month later, Steiner brought the litigation against the county, in hopes that it backtrack and make the zoning more inclusive of existing businesses. The decision will be made at the writ of mandate hearing in January. Amber Holderness, the attorney representing the county, has not responded for comment.
“The ideal thing is that the county realizes that there is a better solution so they can continue with what they want, and we can continue with what is here,” Steiner said.
While the county might grant permits for functional repairs, adding structures on the property is a no-go, affecting future viability.
Jump on the School Bus, a party bus rental service, houses its vehicles in a spot at the end of the corridor. If owner Sierra Falso-Fiechter wanted to build a new covering for her fleet, she would be unable to get the permits necessary as a “legally nonconforming” property. For businesses like Jump on the School Bus, the only option may be to relocate.
“It’s unfortunate because we’re a growing business,” said Falso-Fiechter, who added that she did not receive a notice about the zoning change. “… We’re just kind of in limbo.”
It’s unclear how developers can proceed with creating retail businesses and housing, and whether they must raze their existing buildings and start from scratch to do so. The county allows existing businesses to continue as “legally nonconforming” structures.
The financial aspect of gradually converting the area to mixed-use is also a concern to residents. If the county were to create affordable housing in the area, outlined as a potential residential plan, it would cost millions to scrap what’s already there, and build retail and apartment locations on top of the land.
“If the vision of mixed-use residential was such a great business opportunity and made sense, you’d be seeing it done,” said Rice.