Measure H: The County Split? Absolutely Not.

The most important vote you can cast this June is the
one against splitting Santa Barbara County. If Measure H should
pass, it would be a cataclysmic disaster for us all — those stuck
in the economic chaos of the new Mission County and those stranded
in what would be left of Santa Barbara County. If we approve
Measure H, the only thing that will not start falling on our heads
will be the sky. One doesn’t need to be Chicken Little to know
this.

Map.gifIf you care about the environment, good
government, the plight of the poor, regional planning, or common
sense, then splitting Santa Barbara County would be an assault on
rational self-interest. That’s not to say a new Mission County
would be bad for everyone. The oil companies and private
developers, like Jim Diani, who has underwritten loans to the
county split effort totaling $240,000, would almost immediately
reap profits.

The proposed plan is to split Santa Barbara County at the
Gaviota Pass. The new county would include Hollister Ranch, Point
Conception, the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria, the majority of
agricultural land, rolling hills, and open space. And it would
include Lake Cachuma, the single most important humanmade source of
water for the entire South Coast. Why anyone south of Gaviota would
vote to be separated from Lake Cachuma is a mystery. To believe
proponents of Measure H, with their bland assurances that the new
county will honor Santa Barbara’s old water contracts, flies in the
face of reason. It also defies California’s entire history of
water, politics, and power.

If the proposed Mission County were to be approved, it would
begin with a $30 million budget shortfall, which is why Governor
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special commission concluded that the whole
idea was economically unviable. Even if its sales taxes were raised
by one cent it would fail to bridge this gap. The only way to
balance the budget would be to cut services at least 35 percent.
That means less law enforcement, less fire protection, less help
for the poor, and fewer road repairs. Worse, the new county would
be forced to pay its fair share of the old Santa Barbara County’s
capital debt, its workers’ pensions, and other retirement
costs.

It couldn’t raise enough money through hotel bed taxes because
it has few of the tourist attractions found in the South County,
most notably accessible beach frontage. And barring dramatic
changes, their property tax base cannot increase significantly. No
matter how much Mission County might allow new housing to be built,
the costs of providing services and meeting state standards will
outflank any revenue from growth. So how will Mission County ever
be able to pay for anything?

The most immediate and lucrative way to increase property tax
revenue would be to allow offshore oil development and the building
of its requisite onshore processing facilities. Why would this be a
problem? Aside from the obvious concerns of air and water quality,
the biggest problem is the profile of oil companies operating in
Santa Barbara County today. Instead of the old energy
behemoths — Exxon and Chevron, for example — we’re seeing smaller,
more opportunistic companies fighting to suck the last drops from
the petrochemical straw. Even if the new county had the will to
implement strict environmental standards, most of these companies
wouldn’t have the money to comply with them.

Those are just a few reasons why anyone living north of Gaviota
should vote against the split. But why should South County voters
care? In fact, it’s no secret that some environmentalists are
quietly hoping the split occurs. The reasoning is that all the
pro-growth lobbyists will suddenly leave the slow-growth residents
of southern Santa Barbara alone: “If we never have to hear that
obnoxious Andy Caldwell whine again, so be it! Let them build and
pollute to their hearts’ content.” It might sound appealing, but it
plays out badly.

Air, water, and ecosystems do not recognize county lines.
Traffic, pollution, and toxins travel. Those environmentalists
hoping to preserve valley oaks, steelhead trout, or other
endangered species should remember that most of these still exist
only because of the wild, open ranchlands in the north. The
irreparable damage that a desperate new county government could
do — goaded by developers spouting property-rights jingoisms while
actually promoting get-rich schemes to build cluster-housing on
agricultural land — will truly be awesome. For the
wildlife — flora, fauna, and cowboy alike — it will be a death
sentence: one passed, in part, by any South County environmentalist
voting for the county split.

And what will happen to the funding necessary for commuter rail
or other new transportation options? All those commuters from the
north will not be quitting their jobs down south. To do anything
about traffic, we must use the whole tax base of the present Santa
Barbara County.

But perhaps the most moral, principled reason for anyone to vote
against a county split is the recognition that the majority of our
poor will be isolated in a virtually bankrupt new county. Surely
this would be an act of cruelty.

To those who fear that the south will forever be outnumbered by
a North County hostile to its values, buck up. Though there are
real differences of opinion on our present county board, solutions
are beginning to emerge. Recently two supervisors from the most
northern and southern districts — Joe Centeno and Salud
Carbajal — have been able to work together. And the entire North
County is undergoing a profound demographic change. It’s not just
getting bigger; it’s also building a more solid middle class.

The high housing prices in the south have brought former
residents to the more hospitable markets of Santa Maria and Lompoc.
These people were willing to exchange sea breezes for affordable
housing, but they will not so easily tolerate the destruction of
their air, water, property values, and the natural glory radiating
from the rolling hills of Santa Barbara County. According to a
just-released UCSB survey, 47 percent of North County respondents
objected to the fast pace of growth. By contrast, only 37 percent
of South Coast respondents said growth was too fast. Also, there is
a growing awareness among ranchers, cowhands, farmers, and vintners
that they can work with an informed, pro-agricultural, urban
population to fight the rapacious greed of outside developers.

This is not the time for anyone of us to cut and run, no matter
what side of the battleground we have been defending. Stand and
protect the beauty and richness of this historic land. Save Santa
Barbara County. Vote No on Measure H.

—  Marianne Partridge, Editor-in-Chief

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