OILS WELL THAT ENDS WELL: I’m flat-out jealous. Not only does Mike Brown, the CEO and reigning ¼ber boss of the sprawling county bureaucracy, manage to walk on water, he doesn’t even get his feet wet. It just ain’t fair.
By any objective reckoning, this past month has been a real stinker for Brown. First, Brown got sued by the former public defender James Egar, who accused the county’s chief executive of being a tyrannical, double-dealing bully with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity to shoot saliva projectiles at the objects of his Vesuvian wrath. Not a pretty picture, especially when you consider the county settled a similar complaint against Brown just a few years back for about $925,000. Even by Santa Barbara standards, that’s an expensive temper tantrum.
Then, last Tuesday, the county’s normally pro-growth Planning Commission forgot to roll over and play dead when Brown tried to sneak past it the single biggest development ever proposed in the history of Santa Barbara County. It wasn’t remotely close, as the commission voted 4-1 against even considering the massive development scheme-dubbed North Hills-which Brown reportedly helped hatch, germinate, incubate, and lubricate. Rather than blame himself for overreaching and miscalculating, Brown instead sulked and pouted at his defeat. In fact, the very next day, he publicly complained about the Planning Commission vote to the County Board of Supervisors during last Wednesday’s all-day budget deliberations. “He told us we should look at how we appoint our planning commissioners,” recalled Supervisor Janet Wolf. “He said we should ‘talk to our planning commissioners.'” Wolf-who is willing, if not eager, to mess up Brown’s hair-said she was “taken aback” by Brown’s “stunning comment.” Even Brooks Firestone-the supervisor most inclined to pretend Brown’s many wild hairs are tidily coiffed-commented, “I wish he hadn’t said that.”
For most mere mortals, embarrassments such as these would be the occasion for some tough talk from the boss and perhaps a serious chastisement. Not for Mike Brown. To the extent the supervisors are unhappy about the recent turn of events, they expressed their displeasure last week by giving Brown a two-year contract extension. In addition, they sweetened Brown’s pot considerably by more than doubling the size of his severance package, in the event a future Board of Supervisors lets him go for anything less than malfeasance. Translated into dollars and cents, Brown now stands to walk away with a $155,000 pay-off should he ever be let go, as opposed to the measly $70,000 he would have received just a week ago. It’s common knowledge that in the world of Fortune 500 corporations, some of the worst CEOs of the least successful companies are pulling down the most gargantuan paychecks. But I can’t believe this is what the board majority really meant when it pledged to run county government more like a business.
Brown was recently given unprecedented executive powers by the county supes, in part because they don’t want to be bothered with the exhausting task of micromanaging county government and because the county bureaucracy truly is, and always has been, out of control. Brown-who by all accounts is a brilliant, if mercurial, dude-comes from the you-can’t-make-an-omelet-without-breaking-an-egg school of thought. According to the lawsuit just filed against him, Brown passes out a management text titled Ruling Through Terror. When this system works, it’s great. But when it backfires-as it did with the North Hills development proposal-everyone winds up with egg on their face.
North Hills is the proverbial great idea whose time will never come, a massive mixed-use project the developers promised could be “nestled” and “tucked into” several “urban villages” strewn throughout 4,000 acres of the oak savannahs and scenic oil fields located in the middle of nowhere between Orcutt and Los Alamos. On the drawing board were plans for 7,500 housing units and two million square feet of shops, offices, stores, malls, schools, hospitals, and business parks. In terms of housing, that’s 10 times bigger than the next biggest development the county has ever seen. In terms of commercial, that’s roughly the equivalent of five Paseo Nuevos plopped down on land zoned for agriculture. And in terms of new traffic, that’s roughly 150,000 extra car trips a day. Call me stupid, but I don’t see how this qualifies as the most “sustainable” development ever to grace the County of Santa Barbara.
Brown’s interest is obvious. The developers Breitburn Energy and Randy Wheeler-have promised to set aside 1,500 units as affordable housing, which would go a long way toward meeting politically unpalatable state mandates to provide for new arrivals, even a few poor ones. And more real estate development means more tax revenues, which means fatter county budgets. It also means more demand for service and higher county costs, but that’s another story. What made this proposal so audaciously over the top was not just its magnitude. Twenty-seven years of land-use doctrine would have to be tossed overboard regarding the sanctity of urban limit lines and saving ag land from urban encroachment. And then there’s the question of locating about 21,000 new residents cheek by jowl with active and expanding oil field operation. If nothing else, this gives new meaning to the term “mixed-use.” No wonder Brown wanted to spring this on the Planning Commission so suddenly. If Brown and his staff had their way, the developers would have been allowed to take the commissioners on intimate tours of the site without the intrusive presence of reporters or the public. We have 4th District Planning Commissioner Joe Valencia to thank for insisting the media and community groups be invited.
In selling the proposal to the commissioners, Brown and his staff told a couple of serious whoppers. First, they argued the plan was worthy of study because it was consistent with the findings of a special Blue Ribbon Task Force-appointed by the Board of Supervisors-that unanimously recommended the creation of urban villages throughout the county. But the distortion becomes apparent to anyone reading the fine print of the Blue Ribbon report. It calls for urban villages of only 1,000 housing units-both single family and apartments-not the 7,500 proposed in North Hills. Likewise, the Blue Ribbon report envisioned no more than 200,000 square feet of commercial development, not the two million proposed by North Hills.
North Hills was proposing 10 times the amount of development of what the Blue Ribbon panel endorsed. That’s a major difference. Secondly, we heard from the county and the developer how the 4,000 acres of land in question was simply not viable for agriculture. In fact, I was told the land was too dry to even sustain cattle grazing. If that’s the case, why did two prominent North County ranchers show up at last week’s Planning Commission meeting to explain just how sorely they’d miss grazing their cows on North Hills’ allegedly marginal rangeland? If the land was so bad, it certainly came as a surprise to them. As one of the ranchers put it, “I thought I was making a decent living.” Perhaps the coup de gr•ce was delivered by owners of Santa Maria Production (SMP), an oil outfit that spent eight figures on the subsoil mineral rights to 1,000 acres of the land in question. SMP executives noted out loud how oil production-no matter how sensitively undertaken-is inherently noisy and dangerous. To the extent Brown reckoned North County interests would conform to the redneck, pro-growth stereotype, he was sadly mistaken. In fact, it was two North County commissioners-Daniel Blough and David Smyser-who spearheaded the charge against North Hills. Their votes-coupled with the South Coast’s Cecelia Brown and Michael Cooney-proved so sufficiently decisive that the North Hills developers decided to beat a strategic retreat. Early this week, they asked their project be removed from the supervisors’ July 10 agenda. As long as Mike Brown’s involved, though, no one should delude themselves the proposal is dead. Just on life support.
Like I say, I’m jealous. If I screwed up this bad, I’d be announcing how I was retiring to spend more time with my family and begin work on the Great American screenplay. When most people get egg on their face, they have to wash it off. Not Mike Brown. He makes a meringue. And the rest of us have to eat it.