Minimal Leeway

Council and Developer Come to Terms Over Las Positas Housing
Project

by Nick Welsh

Developer Mark Lee and members of the Santa Barbara City Council
have been playing a game of high-stakes chicken regarding the fate
of Lee’s fiercely fought Veronica Springs housing proposal — slated
for the west side of Las Positas Creek — and late Tuesday
afternoon, both sides blinked. Lee managed to avoid all but certain
defeat by agreeing to reduce the number of homes proposed from 23
to about 15. In a major reversal, Lee also agreed to build his
access road through Alan Road rather than construct the entrance
bridge he originally proposed, which would have spanned Las Positas
Creek directly across from Elings Park. Had he not made these
adjustments, Lee could not have cobbled together the five-vote
supermajority required for annexation requests (two weeks ago,
there were five council votes solidly lined up against Lee; he was
given a two-week extension to amend his plan).

Had a tentative deal not been reached, Lee had vowed to submit
plans to the County of Santa Barbara, which currently holds
jurisdiction, for approval instead. While City Hall expressed
confidence it would have prevailed in such a showdown, many
councilmembers expressed deep concern about losing many of the
traffic enhancements and creek improvements Lee was promising. Not
only had Lee agreed to install a new stoplight on Las Positas by
Elings Park, but he would have contributed to the construction of a
new roundabout at Las Positas and Cliff Drive. Lee had also pledged
to spend roughly $3 million on a major creek-restoration effort for
Las Positas Creek. Ironically, Lee’s most vocal opposition came
from creek-restoration advocates, who charged that support posts
for his proposed bridge would damage the creek banks and that Lee’s
restoration plans had never been vetted by the city’s Creeks
Committee.

The deliberations have proved agonizing for most councilmembers,
but none more so than Brian Barnwell, a self-described “creek guy”
who strongly backed Lee’s initial proposal. Barnwell objected the
council’s last-minute tinkering violated the integrity of a
planning process seven years in the making. And by reducing the
number of Lee’s homes, he charged, the city would lose out on
millions of dollars worth of free restoration for a seriously
degraded creek. “I’m more than heartbroken,” he declared. “I’m
upset. I’m disappointed. And I don’t know what to do.”
Councilmember Das Williams, who had spearheaded the charge against
Lee’s project, responded, “When I see open space, I say, ‘Why
should we let it be developed at all?’ And I think many residents
of the South Coast feel the same way.” The matter now goes back to
the Planning Commission and to the Creeks Committee for more
review.

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