This morning, July 3, Caltrans relocked the gates on the Montecito portion of State Highway 144 in Sycamore Canyon. Caltrans’ action overrides the earlier emergency direction of Montecito Fire District Chief Kevin Wallace who, due to high fire-alert conditions, opened the blockade last weekend, making the road available for emergency evacuations, should the need arise.
However, the Santa Barbara end of Sycamore Canyon is a state highway and under Caltrans authority. Caltrans’ deputy district director Steve Price said this morning the open road was being abused by non-emergency traffic use, which created too much risk to keep the gates open.
“The road is not suitable for uncontrolled public access at this time,” said Price. “This morning we discovered the gates were open and we observed uncontrolled public use of the road. It is our determination that the risk and liability to the traveling public using the road under an active slide is too great for Caltrans to accept.”
In 2005, a landslide closed the portion of the popular thoroughfare that links the city of Santa Barbara and Montecito. Fearing the safety of the road, Caltrans installed nearly impervious gates and stopped traffic from using the slide-affected road.
MFD’s Chief Kevin Wallace confirmed Caltrans authority over the gates and road. “It is beyond our authority,” he said. “If they want to close the gates, I cannot stop them. I thought we had buy-in that the gates could be open in a high fire alert, but I now understand unless there is a fire, Caltrans has to be the one to open the gate.” Wallace said if a nearby fire were to occur, the Montecito Fire District and other emergency responders have keys and permission to unlock the gate. “There are probably 100 sets of keys out there,” he said. “The gate will be unlocked if an evacuation is warranted.”
Price said public safety is Caltrans’ primary concern. “Public safety is our primary concern, but today our concern is the lack of safety of uncontrolled public access.” Price said shortly after the gates were opened this weekend, abundant traffic resumed using the one-lane road for non-emergency purposes.
Caltrans and the Montecito Fire District are planning a conference call this afternoon to determine holiday emergency procedure. And next week, emergency responders and decision-makers plan a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. Supervisor Salud Carbajal plans participate in that meeting.
“While addressing these safety concerns on Sycamore Canyon Road is the responsibility of the state, I have been asked by my constituents to facilitate a meeting of stakeholders to try to reach consensus on a practical solution to the closed gate during red flag days and the summer fire season,” said Carbajal.
Don Miller, a resident who lives in the Sycamore Canyon area, said he is concerned about the immediate situation, going into a holiday that’s a favored time for launching dangerous fireworks. “So Caltrans, on the day before the Fourth of July, is going to shut and lock the gates to one of our main escape evacuation routes?” he asked. “This, on a day when kids will be sneaking around shooting off illegal fireworks, and while the wind is predicted to start increasing and the humidity is supposed to drop? Give me that damn key and I will gladly sit down there tomorrow next to the open and unlocked gates.”
Unfortunately, Caltrans’ Price responded to Miller’s offer by noting only law enforcement personnel, duly sworn in and authorized by the state of California, can give traffic direction. So go back to sharpening that chainsaw, Don.
LARGURA PROJECT UPDATE: Largura project architect, Bob Easton, submitted a substantially refined project to the Montecito Board of Architectural Review this week, but even with reduced square footage, the project met with continued neighborhood resistance. After reviewing the project for more than an hour, MBAR postponed action, requesting Easton install story poles on the Bella Vista Road hillside parcel and return to MBAR on July 30.
Kay Peterson, a neighbor to the project, testified she was speaking for herself and 12 other neighbors who want story poles erected so they could better visualize the size and position of the 4,200-square-foot house and guest house. The poles will be installed by July 15 and remain in place until at least July 30. On that date, MBAR will again review the Largura project, with the intention of reaching a decision. Prior to the hearing, MBAR will make a 2 p.m. site visit to the property.
PHARMACY PROPERTY CHANGES: On July 10, the proposed changes to the San Ysidro Pharmacy property, located on the northwest corner of East Valley and San Ysidro roads in the Upper Village, will be discussed at the Montecito Association meeting. Property owner Richard Gunner has been working with architect Don Nulty to create a plan for the property. Preliminary plans include retention of most of the existing structures, and the addition of 5,000 square feet of retail/office space. The meeting will begin at 4 p.m. in the Montecito Hall, 1469 East Valley Road.