The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has filed suit against Santa Barbara County, saying the board of supervisors was “wrongful and unlawful for numerous reasons” in not allowing the garden to complete a project in its meadow area. The garden’s plans for a 4,200 square foot Meadow Terrace project included the installation of a three-tiered flagstone-floored exhibition space in the place where an old, 150-foot oak tree once stood.
But citing a 2003 Board of Supervisors resolution which says that no changes to the landmarked portions of the garden could be made that “substantially deviate from the foregoing historic landscape design concept or historic use of the landmark property unless express consent in writing is first had and obtained” from the Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission (HLAC), the board of supervisors-in a February decision-sided with HLAC in deciding that the project did indeed deviate from the historic use of the property. But the garden says the resolution was incorrectly read, and is seeking the restoration of its “constitutional rights to self govern,” according to the lawsuit filed in Santa Barbara Superior Court May 19. The resolution “makes it clear that the Trustees of [Santa Barbara Botanical Garden] retain the ability to fulfill their mission and fiduciary duties of operating an evolving botanic garden,” according to the suit, and the garden endorsed the resolution and agreed to follow its terms because of its limited scope of restricting the garden’s activities.
The Meadow Terrace project first came under fire in August 2007, after it was almost halfway complete. Neighbors and garden-goers had seen the construction taking place in the Meadow and raised concerns to the county’s Planning and Development Department, which issued a stop work order until the matter could be reviewed. Both Mission Canyon residents and members of HLAC said the commission should’ve had a chance to review the project before construction began. HLAC, in its September 10, 2007, meeting, decided the project did indeed fall under its jurisdiction and also that the project was impermissible under the resolution. But the garden is arguing that the exhibit is exactly the type of project intended for exemption from HLAC jurisdiction under the resolution. “If the action by the Board of Supervisors is allowed to stand with respect to a project as minor as the Meadow Terrace Exhibit, all future improvements and many ongoing activities at SBBG may be similarly prohibited,” argued Rick Battles, attorney representing the Garden, in the complaint.
Battles had no comment because the litigation is pending, explaining that “our position is spelled out pretty clearly in the document.” A spokesperson for the Garden also had no comment, but referred to a previously released statement from the Garden. “As a functional botanic garden and living museum, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden must protect our basic property and constitutional rights to conduct our vital mission of plant research, conservation, education, and display,” the release explained. “We are asking the Santa Barbara County Superior Court to enforce our rights to operate without interference.”
The board’s decision creates a “dangerous precedent with respect to the misinterpretation of existing landmark designations of other properties in the county, and will have a chilling effect on the willingness of owners of properties being considered for landmark status to agree to a proposed landmark designation,” according to the suit. Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, the only dissenting vote in the 4-1 board vote in February, expressed fear in the threat of the lawsuit when he cast his vote. The other motivation for his no vote, Firestone said, was the small scale of the project. He expressed concern that many people speaking against the terrace project weren’t so much against this project but against change in general. “If landmarks become unreasonable, unworkable, the whole process is brought into disrepute,” he said.
The garden isn’t seeking money outside of attorneys’ fees. It is asking for relief and a “correct reading of the county’s resolution.”