Santa Barbara County Planning Commission
Paul Wellman

One of the more contentious proposals to hit Santa Barbara County decision makers in recent months landed before the Planning Commission on Wednesday, August 5, when the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden presented its controversial, four-years in-the-making Vital Mission Plan, which seeks to construct more buildings for educational and research purposes and finalize changes to a historic meadow.

As expected, the meeting – which included five hours of presentations and a couple hours of public testimony from about 50 speakers either for and against the plan – went all day and did not finish with a commission vote. (See a round-up of the major issues here.) The discussion will continue at a September 2 hearing, following which the Planning Commission is expected to make a final decision. But that probably won’t be the end either, because the Planning Commission’s vote, however it goes, will likely be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Botanic Garden Executive director Ed Schneider addresses the planning commission
Paul Wellman

“This is an extremely important issue that has been underway for many years, and we don’t want to rush the process here,” said Commissioner Michael Cooney near the end of the hearing, expressing his hope that the commission would have a full day set aside for the second hearing also. “I wouldn’t like to shortchange anybody who would approach us with additional testimony or evidence before we enter our deliberations.”

“What would Mission Canyon look like without the Botanic Garden?” she asked, explaining that it would likely be more homes and an even greater fire hazard. “I shudder to think.”

Those in favor of the project, many of whom wore green “thumbs-up” tags on their shirts, believe the development is necessary for the Botanic Garden to continue into the future as a viable place for science and learning about native California plants (as well as non-native species that share the local environment). Said artist Anna Campbell, who taught classes at the Garden in the 1980s, “Even back then, the classrooms were cramped and the facilities were very limited.” Janice Cloud, who’s lived near the Garden for 37 years called the proposal “modest,” explaining, “It is by no means extravagant.” She also lambasted the writers of “ill-informed letters” and the “flailing local media” for printing them. “What would Mission Canyon look like without the Botanic Garden?” she asked, explaining that it would likely have more homes and be an even greater fire hazard. “I shudder to think.” Bill Koontz, a physician who has sat on the Garden’s board for a number of years, called on commissioners to recognize the need for biodiversity, and asked that they “help us understand our mission and help us find common ground.”

Attorney Marc Chytilo
Paul Wellman

Those against the project, who wore orange-yellow tags saying “Deny the VMP,” are worried that it presents safety hazards for those who live in wildfire-prone Mission Canyon above the Garden; that it’s a shift away from the Garden’s longtime low-impact vision and toward a campus-like setting; and that the changes to the historic meadow are in violation of that area’s landmark status. Attorney Marc Chytilo, representing the Friends of Mission Canyon, called the Vital Mission Plan the “largest development project in the history of Mission Canyon.” He asked that the commission deny the project and ask for a “downsized” version. During a slideshow, Chytilo, who lives up canyon, showed numerous buses that had gotten stuck in Mission Canyon near the Botanic Garden, and pondered what would happen if that occurred during a wildfire. One speaker even said that the commission will have “blood on their hands” if they approve the project and a fire later kills someone because of it. Said canyon resident Kevin Snow, “It is not a college campus. It is not an events center.” Former Santa Barbara mayor Sheila Lodge, who was a docent for 12 years, until the meadow terrace project began, said, “I believe it is essential to the core, the heart, the soul of the Botanic Garden to keep [the meadow] the way it was. The terraces should go. The pavers should go.”

All of this debate, and more, is likely to happen again on September 2. Stay tuned.


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