Throwdown Montecito Style

New Group Challenges Montecito Association’s Influence

by Martha Sadler

The Santa Barbara County Supervisors boardroom overflowed with
Montecitans Tuesday for a showdown over planning processes in their
exclusive enclave of about 10,000 well-heeled residents. In one
corner — represented by the Montecito Association (MA) and the
Montecito Planning Commission (MPC), were the old-school
preservationists who for decades have kept Montecito woodsy and
understated. In the other corner was a newly emerging group of
activists — calling themselves the Voices of Montecito — that
accuses the old guard of being inbred and stuffy.

Mary-Belle-Snow.jpgAt issue was the process by which
development projects are approved — or not — in Montecito. It is
not unusual for homeowners and developers to rise up against
aesthetically and environmentally conservative review boards, but
in Montecito the battle is rife with intrigue and gossip. For
example, the MA and its supporters charge that the new Voices of
Montecito activists are merely pawns of Ty Warner, the Beanie Baby
mogul and major Montecito property owner whose holdings include the
Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel and Spa, the Coral Casino, San Ysidro
Ranch, the Miramar, and the Montecito Country Club. Warner,
according to some, has recently become frustrated with the MPC.

The Voices of Montecito made its public debut just a few weeks
ago, when a couple dozen of its members showed up to support
Warner’s bid to build walkways and a grand stairway down to
Butterfly Beach, across from the Biltmore, using materials matching
the Biltmore’s. The MPC had turned down the project, saying it made
the public beach look like a private extension of the ritzy hotel
and would scare off the average beachgoer. Project supporters fired
back that the storm-damaged stairs looked like “rubble” and the MPC
had done nothing about it. The supervisors, however, unanimously
approved the project, merely adding a requirement for signage
informing people the beach is public.

Several of those who turned out Tuesday took umbrage at the
implication that they were being manipulated by Warner. Cindy
Marcus, for one, said she was there because the process of getting
approval to build a second story on her house had taken three
years. She claims the MPC sent her and her architect back to the
drawing board several times — and her architect, Raymond Ketzel,
was a member of the commission. Marcus also said the rules need to
be clarified so that architects can draw plans that will pass
muster the first or second time. While she has her own issues with
the MPC, Marcus acknowledged that it was a letter to her signed by
Warner that launched her into the role of citizen-activist for
reform of Montecito’s planning processes.

Montecito Association activists saw not only Warner’s influence
behind the Voices of Montecito group, they also saw the hand of
John Davies — owner of Davies Public Affairs, which specializes,
according to its Web site, in “the business of persuasion.” The
company offers “innovative strategies … to earn attention and gain
influence in the decision-making process.” A longtime political and
corporate player in Santa Barbara, Davies boasts a 90 percent win
ratio in the 150 political campaigns he has run. While that claim
has not been confirmed, it does not provoke strong disagreement
from other campaign managers.

Warner, one of Davies’s corporate clients, has issues with the
MA and MPC. Among other things, he blames them for his failure to
renovate the Miramar, which he has owned for almost two years and
which has been an unoccupied ruin for the better part of the past
decade. At the time that he abandoned his plans for the seaside
hotel, his spokesperson said Warner had no confidence that the
commission would approve them. It may never be known for certain
whether Davies instigated the formation of Voices of Montecito to
derail Warner’s foes, but many in Montecito are convinced of

Mary Belle Snow, a Voices activist, insisted she has never even
met Ty Warner beyond shaking his hand once in the Biltmore lobby.
Nor does Voices have any agenda to destroy the 60-year-old MA, she
said. All they want is for the Board of Supervisors to appoint a
blue-ribbon panel to examine the planning process and determine if
a small clique is exerting undue influence in Montecito. Most of
the MPC members, who are appointed by the county supervisors, earn
the job by working their way through the volunteer ranks of the MA.
Snow said she thinks that is too closed a system. Furthermore, Snow
said she would like the county planning department to approve
development requests without checking with the MA first.

For their part, MA members say that Montecito’s planning
processes don’t need fixing and characterize the Voices membership
as newcomers — at best naïve, and at worst, bent on recreating La
Jolla in Montecito. It is true that most of the people who serve on
the community’s planning commission came from the MA and the
Montecito Board of Architectural Review. That is a good thing, MPC
member Richard Thielscher told the supervisors. They have lived in
Montecito most of their lives, he said, are experienced, and are
committed to upholding the Montecito Community Plan. Fellow member
Jon Warner agreed. “I am amazed that people move into a place with
the highest property values in the nation and want to change it to
suit their needs,” said Jon Warner, who also indicated that
Montecito would reexamine the possibility of cityhood if the
supervisors interfered with the status quo. And such a change could
mean the possibility of Montecitans taking their property tax
revenue with them. Another MA supporter, Michael Zivolli, said the
existing process has kept Montecito the “little gem in paradise”
that it is, distinguished by its natural beauty from other wealthy
communities in Los Angeles and Orange County. MA member Sally
Jordan said that by their own admission, most of the Voices of
Montecito members didn’t even know what a community plan was six
months ago. MA president Robert Collector and several others urged
opponents to join them in the Montecito Association. “Anyone can
join,” he pleaded. “The process is transparent. If you care so
much, join us.”

Tuesday’s argument was not an officially scheduled hearing: The
two sides showed up on the occasion of 1st District Supervisor
Salud Carbajal’s appointment of three members to the
MPC — appointments that none of the Voices speakers opposed even
though the appointees were all straight out of the MA
establishment. Voices instead focused all of its efforts on trying
to persuade the supervisors to appoint an outside commission to
examine the process. Ultimately, the other four supervisors
deferred to Carbajal, who pledged to listen to all sides. Voices
did not go away entirely empty-handed, though; Carbajal hinted that
perhaps the MA should not physically sign off on encroachment
permit requests, as it does now, and he also said he would notify
Voices of upcoming issues in the same way that he now notifies the


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