The Creek Runneth Again

County Supes Scrap Mitigation and Rule in Favor of

by Ethan Stewart

Despite being yanked from last week’s Board of Supervisors
meeting agenda amidst a flurry of emails from the involved parties,
an appeal by the Land Trust for Santa Barbara was unanimously
approved by county supervisors this week. The approval clears the
way for long-percolating restoration plans for Arroyo Hondo Creek
to move forward, free of the burden of the labor- and
cost-intensive mitigations the Board initially required. In August,
the Board approved the Land Trust-led Arroyo Hondo Steelhead
Passage project, essentially giving the go-ahead for the removal of
a large concrete culvert near the base of the train trestle where
the creek meets the ocean, the addition of grouted rock, and the
resulting creation of a new lagoon area. Much to the dismay of the
Land Trust, the Board had also added the stipulation that the
construction be mitigated by a 3-to-1 ratio of assorted native
plants upstream from the restoration area. After this week’s vote,
the Land Trust needs only to replant vegetation and habitat at a
1-to-1 ratio in the immediate restoration area.

The Arroyo Hondo Ranch was acquired as a preserve in 2001 by the
Land Trust, and its 782 acres make up more than a quarter of the
Arroyo Hondo Creek watershed area, with the remainder falling under
the jurisdiction of the Forest Service. According to Land Trust
director Michael Feeney, the reconstruction of the lower 550 feet
of the creek would result in the opening up of approximately six
miles of vital steelhead breeding habitat. And while associated
agencies like NOAA, California Fish and Game, and CalTrans all felt
the proposed restoration and its 1-to-1 mitigation was more than
reasonable, county staff countered that all projects — whether they
be environmentally motivated or development-based — should be
forced to comply with a 3-to-1 mitigation ratio. The nonprofit,
volunteer-based Land Trust feared the 3-to-1 ratio would not only
be overkill but could also possibly slow the project’s completion,
if not derail it. “All the plants we are taking out, all the areas
we are restoring, we are going to restore to a much better
condition than they are today,” explained Feeney to the supes this
week. He went on to point out that the 3-to-1 ratio didn’t exist
anywhere in county code.

Adding further complexity to the Arroyo Hondo Creek issue — and
no doubt fueling the widespread email speculation that the plan
could forever remain saddled with the 3-to-1 ratio — were the ill
feelings currently hanging over the board. Supervisor Brooks
Firestone in particular was peeved after an enviro-led appeal
essentially killed a Gaviota Bridge project despite the fact that
the county had sunk $900,000 into its planning and had secured
approximately $6 million in federal funds. Observers thought
Firestone’s frustration over the outcome of the bridge project
would influence his vote on Arroyo Hondo. However, in the end,
Supervisor Firestone surprised everyone by making the motion to
approve the appeal — though not before lamenting the Gaviota Bridge
meltdown — and even took things one step further by asking staff to
come back to the board at a later date with a plan for dealing with
future mitigation ratio debates.


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