A refugee from Laguna Beach, Dianne Channing says she knows firsthand how a quick burst of intense real estate development can spoil a charmed coastal community forever. “There used to be so much open space. You’d look out the window and see someone in a hammock,” she recalled. “Then there was all this overdevelopment, there was gridlock, and things got vicious and nasty.” Now making her second bid for the city council, Channing wants to prevent what happened to Laguna Beach from happening to Santa Barbara.
In 1995, Channing bought a home on the Riviera with her husband Philip; the two of them have run a successful photography business for the past 23 years. Channing quickly jumped into the Riviera Association. There, she became embroiled in the fight over the fate of the Franceschi House in Franscesci Park. The Riviera Association opposed efforts by the Pearl Chase Society to preserve the house, arguing that the gardens were historic, but that the house was not. If the house were restored as envisioned, many Riviera residents worried that it would draw an influx of visitors, who’d jam that neighborhood’s narrow streets and overwhelm the limited number of parking spaces. As a compromise the council gave the Pearl Chase Society time to raise funds to restore the house, an undertaking that remains in limbo. In the meantime, said Channing, “The park’s future is being held hostage.”
In 2001, Channing helped push through the council an amended view ordinance, designed to protect residents from having their views blocked by their neighbors’ trees or foliage. “If you keep telling your neighbor to go away, you can be sued,” she said, summarizing the effect of the new ordinance. “Before the ordinance there was great animosity between neighbors, but now most people are able to resolve thing.” Ironically, Channing found herself in such a dispute with a neighbor. She initiated litigation, but the case settled before going to court.
Through her work on the view ordinance, Channing struck up a relationship with Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, who strongly supported the measure. When a rash of large scale remodels recent arrivals erupted on the Mesa, neighbors found themselves pit against neighbors over how much and how big the remodels should be. Responding to concern over “McMansions,” the City Council established a committee to study revisions to the city’s then-toothless Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance. Residents living in one-story homes demanded relief from the towering intrusions of two-story remodels. Those looking to remodel demanded relief from the inflexible tyranny of 1950s home dimensions. Architects opined en masse that bad design was the problem, not sheer size. City planners demanded specific guidelines to advise applicants and appellants alike. And city councilmembers – tired of brokering such petty, nasty neighborhood disputes into the late night hours – demanded action.
Channing was appointed to serve on the committee; later her colleagues – who included two councilmembers and two planning commissioners – would elect her to chair the meetings. For two years and 30 meetings, the deliberations dragged on and on. Ultimately, the committee proved stalemated over the most contentious issue: specific floor area ratios. But it did agree on a host of reforms that established clearer, more enforceable design standards and required property owners to notify their neighbors far sooner in the design review process about what kind of changes might be in store. And eventually, the council itself would approve new floor area ratios.
At the end, both sides would grumble they’d given up too much. But for Channing it was a political education. “I learned how to deal with the public,” she said. “I learned how to listen and how to take into account what staff had to say.”
Four years ago, Channing made her first council bid. Although she enjoyed strong backing from Mayor Marty Blum and councilmember Das Williams, her campaign fell short. Since then, she’s immersed herself in all the intricacies of Democratic Party politics. Quiet and reserved in public, Channing seemed to be everywhere, attending every meeting, taking notes, speaking on behalf of greater protections for renters. In terms of political exposure and endorsements, it’s paid off. Among her achievements, Channing is the only council candidate to be endorsed by both the police officers and firefighters unions, though she stressed that neither union asked her about pay raises or salary.
Should Channing be elected, there’s no shortage of grueling work ahead. Both the city’s budget deliberations and final resolution of Plan Santa Barbara – in which the council establishes specific growth and development guidelines to govern the next 20 years – promise long, contentious and tedious battles. On the budget, Channing said, her business experience has taught her the wisdom of expanding slowly. As for the pay hike the council granted in February, she said, “I don’t think it was good timing.” As to the city’s diminished reserves, she said, “I would not have dipped into the reserves to the extent that they did.” Parks and Recreation will have to rely increasingly on volunteers, she believes, and City Hall might have to consolidate some of the many boards and commissions that require staff assistance.
On planning matters, Channing remains more an old school slow-growther and preservationist. She’s willing to pack more dense development downtown, she said, but she opposes efforts to reduce parking requirements on new development as a way of inducing people to ride the bus. She supports Measure B, arguing that the city’s boards and commissions will not have the tools otherwise to reject larger development proposals. Nor will Measure B curb the development of affordable housing, she argued, noting that most affordable housing is now found in one and two story structures.
Like many slow-growthers, Channing is skeptical over the Plan Santa Barbara process. It’s taken too long with too little to show for it, she said. And she worries that city planners have their own agenda – for more density and more housing than many in the community are comfortable with. “I know the work papers don’t always reflect what happened when I was there,” she explained. “If you have nine people at a table and eight say ‘A’ and one says ‘B,’ the staff report reads, ‘There was divided opinion on A and B.'”