Ambitious new plans to expand both the recreational opportunities and special events now offered at Elings Park may be dead on arrival given the terminal lack of love they received last Thursday night by park neighbors and the even frostier reaction by members of Santa Barbara’s Planning Commission and Parks and Recreation Commission during a joint hearing that dragged on for more than four hours. At first blush, the specific bone of contention appeared to be technical and limited: Had the Draft Environmental Impact Report adequately assessed the full impacts of the proposed new development? The immediate answer, according to all the commissioners-as well as the majority of people who packed the City Council chambers to speak-was emphatically “no.” According to many speakers, the report utterly failed to describe the full extent of noise and light pollution the expanded park operations would generate. Worse, they argued, the report failed to provide meaningful descriptions of feasible alternatives that might impose less of an impact on nearby streets and residents. But even more damaging were allegations that the park’s existing operations-especially the wedding parties held at the park’s Godric Grove-inflicted an unfair burden on the park’s immediate neighbors.
More than one speaker complained that amplified music from Godric Grove overwhelmed the volume of their televisions, even with the doors shut and the windows closed. One planning commissioner who lives near the park-John Jostes-complained that the noise was so bad that he’d called the police multiple times. Jostes had recused himself from participating as a commissioner because of his proximity to the park and testified strictly as an individual. But Planning Commissioner Stella Larson, who chaired the meeting, had similar gripes; however, she lives far enough from the park that she didn’t have to recuse herself. Larson recounted that she called the park one time to complain about the noise generated by an annual mountain bike event held there. Larson said she was informed she could not be hearing the sounds about which she was complaining. “I thought they were barking up the wrong lady with that remark,” she recounted. Planning Commissioner Addison Thompson was dramatically underwhelmed by the report’s recommendation that ambient noise from the park should be monitored. “To say it should be ‘monitored’ is toothless,” he said. “So it’s monitored-then what?”
The Elings Park Foundation has proposed a number of major changes: adding two new soccer fields with night lighting, moving the BMX track from its current location to a new and as-yet undeveloped site that’s owned by the foundation and adjacent to the existing park, and creating an 18-hole Frisbee golf course, a dog-walking area, batting cages, a hillside amphitheater, and a new 13,000-square-foot community building capable of hosting large-scale weddings, corporate retreats, and other events sufficiently lucrative to finance the park’s expansion and future operations. In addition, the foundation has proposed hosting 12 events a year for up to 1,000 people. Trish Allen, the land use consultant hired by the foundation, noted there’s a severe shortage of available soccer fields; even with the two new fields, she said Santa Barbara would still face a sports-field shortfall 18.7-acres big. Allen, like a handful of speakers who voiced support for the new BMX track, said the night lights would be necessary only 36 evenings of the year, and then only between the hours of 6 and 8 p.m.
While foundation supporters sought to speak for the children, the children who showed up never got a chance to speak for themselves. Critics of the expansion plans had shown up early and submitted their speakers’ slips first. By the time the kids who attended could be called upon to speak, they had already gone home, presumably to sleep. Had they stayed, the results would not have been different. Expansion critics had packed the house, prepared technically detailed objections, and, for good measure, hired land use attorney Marc Chytilo, now enjoying a long string of legal victories against various development proposals. They blasted the noise analysis, complaining that the analysis of Godric Grove, for example, took place during a relatively quiet dog event, not when amplified music was playing. They also objected that the noise impacts were averaged out over a 24-hour period, thus obscuring the peak impact of events.
Planning Commissioner Bruce Bartlett praised Elings Park as a true community asset. Still, he said the environmental report left much to be desired in assessing the proposed expansion’s impact on lights, noise, traffic, parking, and views. The lack of alternatives, he indicated, was especially troubling. “To dismiss all the alternatives as infeasible is not appropriate,” he said. Public comment on the impact report closes December 3.