The seaside city of Carpinteria finds itself at a crossroads: Will it live forever as a tourist-dependent and farmer-friendly beach town or will it accept the big money bequests of oil, and allow a towering drill in the middle of town?
That question is at the heart of the race for two open seats on the Carpinteria City Council, the body that will likely accept or deny Venoco Inc.’s Paredon Project, the controversial slant-drilling operation that proposes to erect a nine-story drill behind City Hall. Although the project currently is in bureaucratic limbo-and some predict that Venoco may instead put it up to a vote of the people rather than jump through the typical civic hoops-it’s still the talk of the town, and Carpinterians find themselves divided between pro-business types welcoming the promised windfall and the more environmentally minded citizens who are vehemently opposed.
“I grew up in an oil town,” explained Vera Bensen, a longtime watchdog with the Carpinteria Valley Association, “and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” To which Kasey Cronquist, an executive with the California Cut Flower Commission, retorted, “We need to recognize we’ve got a larger responsibility and a direct opportunity to bring significant resources into the community.”
But Paredon isn’t the only thing worth debating on Linden Avenue. Traffic is reaching nightmarish proportions, developments are proposed while old ones still aren’t occupied, and the surrounding agriculture always seems threatened by bumper crops of homes. And in the last four Carpinteria City Council races, when close to 10,000 voters turned out each time, the winners often got a mere couple hundred votes more than their opponents. So when you hear a Carpinterian say that this is the most important City Council race in recent memory, you should take it to heart, and read this candidate rundown to get familiar with next year’s decision makers.
Joe Armendariz (incumbent)
For government gadflies, Joe Armendariz-the executive director of the S.B. County Taxpayers Association-was known for many years to be one of the more outspokenly conservative voices in the county and an occasional long-shot candidate for 1st District Supervisor and City Council in Carp, where he’s lived since 1991. Four years ago, he finally landed an elected spot on the council, and, he thinks, surprised everyone by “doing basically what I said I was going to do”: restore a level of civility, collaborate in a bipartisan way, and, as a member of LAFCO and SBCAG, bring a regional perspective.
When he talks about not wanting to see much more housing and recognizing the value of open space, Armendariz surely doesn’t sound like the develop-at-all-costs boogeyman he once did. “I’m older than I was when I had a reputation for being bombastic,” he explained, “when I was young and irresponsible.”
Even on Paredon, the 41-year-old father of two grown kids and two young ones remains skeptical. “Obviously, there are a lot of concerns about safety, and there are a lot of concerns about safety with respect to the facility now even without the project,” he explained. “That’s something the council has to deal with on a regular basis.” Armendariz, who said he would need to see “comprehensive economic analysis” before making any decision, believes that the decision is many years away, and should be made in the context of the greater national energy debate.
And it might not be up to the council anyway. “I think that the company would probably rather put this thing on the ballot and let people decide whether they want that type of development in this small beach community right next to a neighborhood,” he said. “Those are the kinds of questions people really need to ask themselves.” So can Carp be both beach town and oil town? “Frankly, I don’t think you can be both,” he said.
Of all the candidates, 72-year-old Chuck McQuary has the most hands-on experience dealing with government bureaucracy. A former transit development director and current boardmember for the Metropolitan Transit District (MTD), Carp planning commissioner from 2001 to 2007, and current consultant for the Gold Coast Transit in Ventura County, McQuary knows how to get things done, so he’s ready to spend his golden years in City Hall, protecting the town he’s been loving for-“if you count weekends”-the past 30 years.
He’s watched many a California area fall to overdevelopment, including his native San Fernando Valley. “Frankly, that’s one reason I’ve gotten involved up here in Carpinteria,” said the father of three and grandfather of three, who was asked to run by two former mayors and two sitting councilmembers. “When I was a kid, the valley was a great place to grow up. It’s just been ruined. This just can’t happen here,” he said.
The Paredon project is one threat. “A lot of people in Carpinteria see dollar signs,” said McQuary. “That’s well and good, but I’m just not sure that the money will be there in a timely way, and if it is, will it be enough to take care of potential problems that could arise. They could be significant, and some impacts are really scary.”
As a planning commissioner, McQuary voted in favor of the Lagunitas Project on the east end of town, the Mission Terrace development closer to downtown, and Lavender Court, which is often criticized for, among other things, its color scheme. “Some people may not like the colors,” said McQuary, “but it really improved that end of town.”
But the biggest threat to Carpinteria, said McQuary, is “creeping annexation,” whereby the agricultural ends of town are annexed into the city by developers. “That’s the worst thing that can happen to Carpinteria,” he explained, because it would set a dangerous growth precedent. “We need to keep borders intact so that doesn’t happen.”
Steve McWhirter’s the only born-and-raised Carpinterian in the race, and he doesn’t let you forget it. “Of all the candidates, nobody loves Carpinteria more than I do,” claimed McWhirter, a 51-year-old welding contractor whose parents owned and operated Ralph’s Market on Linden Avenue for decades. “It’s my hometown.”
After getting a taste of politics while walking precincts for his friend Armendariz four years ago and then attending council meetings regularly for the past two years, McWhirter decided to run this year because, with Mike Ledbetter retiring, he “saw the direction that the council would be heading if we didn’t get people in there who had balance, who had roots like I do in the community, and who understand what Carpinteria is all about.”
To him, that means halting all future development and addressing overcrowded neighborhoods, traffic, and parking problems. “We’re pretty much built out,” said McWhirter, adding, “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the last 35 to 40 years-some good, some not so good. I just want to make sure we keep it a safe community, a place where people want to come, where businesses thrive and tourism stays where it’s at.”
As someone who works often for Venoco, many have pegged McWhirter as pro-Paredon. If that vote does come, McWhirter would have to recuse himself, but as someone who helped clean up the 1969 oil spill, he’s not quite the oilman his opponents paint him to be. “Even though the benefits could be very attractive and could be very useful to our community, there are a lot of things that still need to be mitigated, and a lot of issues need to be addressed,” he said. “I’m undecided as a citizen. I really and truly am.”
But being in the business so long-his company, which now also employees his two sons, was founded in 1979-McWhirter also realizes that the technology is much safer and the regulations much tighter than years ago. So he’s dismayed that other candidates seem so opposed before knowing all the facts. And he wants to make sure Carpinterians know the facts about him.
“Because I do work in the energy industry, [my opponents] assume I’m pro-oil, and that’s an assumption that isn’t necessarily correct,” said McWhirter, who’s down at the Farmers Market every Thursday to meet potential supporters. “If they have any question, they should talk to me and not listen to hearsay.”
As the only avowed liberal and environmentalist running, journalist, former teacher, avid cyclist, and current Planning Commissioner Kathleen Reddington enjoys the pledged support of Democrats and greenies, from Santa Barbara City councilmembers Das Williams and Grant House to 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, current councilmember Al Clark, and eco-watchdog Vera Bensen. [CORRECTION: Reddington does not have Carbajal’s endorsement. The Independent regrets the reporting error.]
Reddington, who moved to Carp 10 years ago from the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles after an adjacent house got shot up in a drive-by, got involved in politics when her next-door neighbor tried to build a second story that would have blocked her sunlight and turned her home into a “fishbowl.” The 51-year-old found herself working the civic bureaucracy, wound up helping set community design guidelines, and also campaigned to save some Torrey Pine trees from development threats. That led her to the Planning Commission, where she’s been serving for three years.
As a commissioner, Reddington, who lives in Carp with her husband and 14-year-old daughter, is most proud of her work to make the Main School project a “win-win” for everyone. When the other commissioners voted for the project without the desired parking mandate, Reddington was the lone dissenter; when the project hit City Council, they forced the parking exactly as Reddington and the school’s neighbors desired.
As for Paredon, it’s no surprise where she stands. “I’m a very strong environmentalist. I will uphold and listen to the people of Carpinteria and what they say regarding the project,” she explained, conscious that as a sitting commissioner, she can’t pledge a vote one way or another. “I enjoy the city as it is with a tourist-based economy and feel very strongly as an environmentalist; I will review it with that in mind.”