SEEING SUN SPOTS: Timing, as they say, is
everything. In this regard, Santa Barbara City Councilmember
Brian Barnwell is probably more than a few days
late, not to mention a couple million bucks short. Even so, his
idea makes a ton of sense, and I’m hoping the powers behind the
throne at Cottage Hospital ultimately decide to
embrace it rather than hunker down and fight it, as they have so
far. The “it” in this case involves putting solar panels on the 115
condos that Cottage has proposed building on the site of its former
cross-town rival, the now-defunct St. Francis
. Given the pace of our climatic meltdown, this
isn’t just a good idea, it’s a great idea. But Cottage is freaking
out for a host of obvious and understandable reasons. They’ve
committed to selling 81 of these units to their own workers at
astoundingly low prices — from $294,000 to $399,000. At a time when
construction costs are going through the roof, any new expense
tends to get Cottage’s underwear in a serious knot. Even without
the solar panels, hospital administrators claim they’ll be losing
millions on the deal instead of breaking even, as they first

Adding to Cottage’s agitation, Barnwell’s suggestion comes as a
last minute Molotov cocktail from someone Cottage always regarded
not just as a sensible moderate, but a genuine friend and
supporter: When he was on the Planning Commission, Barnwell opined
how the St. Francis housing project was perhaps “the finest
development ever proposed in the history of Santa Barbara” or words
to that effect. So why was he, of all people, mucking up their
well-orchestrated plans just as they were preparing for the
City Council showdown with a formidable band of
neighborhood opponents this Tuesday? From Day One, the neighbors
have complained that Cottage’s plans were way too big for the
surrounding environs. From Day Two, these critics charged that City
Hall conspired to cook the books in Cottage’s favor during
environmental review because city officials were so entranced by
the largest privately developed affordable housing project ever
proposed. Cottage administrators were caught off guard by
Barnwell’s solar flare-up, which came to their attention only two
weeks ago, but once they regained their balance they responded with
both guns blazing. “Late hit!” they charged. “Ad-hoc exaction!”
became their legalistic battle cry. Not once in the three years of
environmental review, they pointed out, had anyone ever suggested
they should include solar power. No other developer has ever been
required to provide solar cells. And besides, they argued, the city
has no policies or guidelines calling for solar power.

That’s all true. But things happen. Like global warming. We all
know last year was either the hottest or second hottest year since
we began keeping score, and the 10 hottest years in recorded
history have all occurred since 1990. It’s gotten so bad that
meteorologists and climatologists are now talking seriously about
plans to create a protective smog shield — by spewing about 5
million tons of sulfur gases per year into the upper
atmosphere — to slow the rate of global warming. This kooky plan
was first hatched in 1995 by Paul Crutzen, the
Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered back in the ’70s how
aerosols destroyed the ozone layer. Crutzen’s plan was meant more
as the scientific equivalent of a sick joke about what would be
required if international policy makers didn’t get off their asses
and address the threat of global warming. Now, Crutzen’s joke is on
all of us. While Barnwell is relatively new to the green building
policy debates sparked by global warming, he’s compensating with
his customary enthusiasm coupled with an uncharacteristically
desperate urgency. Sparking his passion was a lecture Barnwell
attended two months ago by international green building guru
Ed Mazria, who argued that planners and architects
hold the key to reversing global warming, not George W. Bush or the
federal environmental bureaucracy. If you took off the road
yesterday all the SUVs and gas guzzlers, Mazria argued, that would
only account for 6.5 percent of the nation’s energy consumption and
their attendant greenhouse gases. But homes, buildings, and other
structures, he argued, accounted for 48 percent of the nation’s
energy consumption and 46 percent of the greenhouse gases produced.
To fight global warming, he argued, people have to start designing
buildings better — whenever and wherever possible, Mazria said,
solar power must be included. Stop blaming Bush, he told the crowd,
and start taking matters into your own hands. It was the misfortune
of Cottage administrators that their St. Francis proposal was the
first big project to come before the council since Barnwell got

But not really.

When you look at the numbers, the added costs of solar
power — about $21,000 per unit — look a whole lot worse than they
actually are. When you factor in the $5,000 rebate the state pays
and the $2,000 in tax write-offs offered as solar incentives, the
real price is just shy of $17,000 per unit. When those costs are
included as part of a standard 30-year housing loan, it comes out
to just $100 a month more. When you factor in the savings in energy
bills, even Cottage’s own number crunchers concede the solar units
will pay for themselves in about 12 years. During 30 years, they
estimate the solar units will save their owners about $41,000 in
energy costs. From where I sit that looks like a great deal. But
Cottage is balking. Its administrators feel they’re being picked
on, so they’re drawing a line in the sand. Spare me. If Santa
Barbara has a ruling elite calling the shots behind closed doors in
smoke-free rooms, it’s the Cottage Hospital board, our local
equivalent of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign
Relations rolled into one. These movers and shakers are endowed
with seismically powered pull, and they do many great things on
Cottage’s and the community’s behalf. But they just hate being told
what to do. Maybe they shouldn’t wait to be told. In most housing
developments, environmental improvements and affordability are
mutually exclusive. This is one of those rare cases where Cottage
can have its cake and eat it, too. So can we all. I’m hoping that
Cottage will feel the heat, see the light, and eventually
reconsider. By then, it will be too late for Thanksgiving. But
maybe it can be delivered in time for Christmas.

— Nick Welsh


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