Fort Botanica

Modest and Necessary: The goal of the Botanic Garden’s Vital Mission Plan is not to hold large events, contrary to some accusations. It is to improve dilapidated facilities and be able to adequately function as a research, education, and conservation institution – which has been the Garden’s historic mission since 1926.

If you attended the hearing on May 18, you may have heard comments from Garden employees and volunteers about the everyday struggles of trying to maintain and propagate plant life without enough lab space, proper storage, or even maintenance sheds.

The Garden has been trying to get this plan approved for 10 years now, and has cut down the plan three times. What stands now is a modest plan that is absolutely essential to viability of the Botanic Garden.

Supervisor Carbajal proposed caps on visitation at the hearing, stipulating no more than 200 visitors/staff/volunteers could be at the Garden at any given time, and an annual cap that is half of the historic usage number. This is not right, and does not solve anything. Such limitations will only hamper the Garden and its historic mission.

Regarding events, the Garden has always held events to attract donors and patrons, just like all other local non-profits of its kind. To limit the number of visitors so drastically, would be destructive and unfair to the Garden and to the thousands of members and supporters who’ve worked hard to support this premiere environmental institution.—Jessica Kelly, Goleta

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Sweet and Simple: I am completely disgusted by the outrageous and unfounded rhetoric regarding the Botanic Garden’s simple, modest plans to improve facilities for education and research.

Those opposed have gone so far as to say the Garden is trying to “commercialize” and will become a “tourist attraction.” It is clear that this is not the Garden’s goal.

The Garden’s goal – which one can see very clearly if they actually review the plans – is to provide better space for the classroom children who visit the Garden each year, lab space to do important research and house plant collections, and storage space for the volunteers and staff who maintain the displays.

The Botanic Garden proposed a plan five years ago that has been stripped down to the absolute basic necessities. What remains are only the necessary improvements so the Garden will continue its historic mission to educate, research, and conserve. After countless meetings, revisions, and hearings, the Garden’s Vital Mission Plan has been approved by the ARB, the Planning Commission, and the HLAC. It’s a small, vocal group of neighbors who want the Garden to remain frozen in time, and continue to hold up the process.

The Mission Canyon Association opposes the Garden’s plans because it claims it’s a “fire-hazard” and will “increase traffic.” Why, then, has the MCA allowed hundreds of new homes to be built over the past 80 years in Mission Canyon, while the Garden continues to acquire and maintain the largest amount of open space in MC?—Anthony Schuck

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Fort Botanica: I grew up in Mission Canyon over 50 years ago. There were only a few families living there at the time like the Dillards, the Freemans, Woggons, McGowans, Van Schaicks, Coes, Morgans, Duerrs, the Allens, and old man Rowney and a few others. The Botanic Garden was our playground. In the summers we would build small rock dams below the old Indian Dam to raise the water in the swimming hole there so it was neck deep and we could jump in. There were no fences and it cost nothing to explore the many trails and enjoy the plants, trees, and shrubs or see the many animals that frequented the garden with unhindered access to the year-round water supply provided by upper Mission Creek. There were deer, fox, rabbits, grey squirrels, bobcats, and coyotes, quail and dove, even an occasional bear or mountain lion.

The park was a bucolic refuge from the bustle of city life. It was quiet and serene and subtly informational because the founders had preserved and tagged many native plants, and most importantly it was always free to the casual or regular visitor seeking to enjoy it’s solitude; free, that is, until fairly recently.

My mother lived in her last house, the one she had built years ago in the canyon, at 1405 Mission Canyon Road, until it burned in the recent Jesusita fire along with everything in it. Her life and love went up in smoke while she was in Cottage Hospital having surgery. Her home sat on the two-and-one-half acre parcel directly above the garden, where she could look out at the tops of the redwoods and pine trees and a view she loved dearly. It always reminded me of some place in Big Sur, looking out over the big trees to the ocean and islands in the distance.

The voices of hikers conversing in a normal tone of voice, while walking the Garden’s trails below, could be heard easily because the echo effect in the narrow confines of upper Mission Canyon were like a megaphone. Neighbors respected this fact and always made efforts not to generate excessive noise. Some of the facilities and features in the Garden have needed modest repair or rehabilitation and such repair and improvements were not and are not opposed by canyon residents and neighbors of the Garden.

No one expected the Garden would remain exactly as it had been for decades but no one expected the radical changes that have taken place in the past ten years or so following the change of administration, and in the philosophy of the trust that governs the Garden, and with the arrival of Ed Schneider, the Garden’s director and administrator until his recent resignation. Under the “new philosophy” the Garden was to no longer be the serene and scenic escape it always was. Under the guise of calling it an “educational institution,” plans were being made to construct a large, concrete, two-story parking garage to serve a reconstructed 350-plus person events facility and many other large buildings to entertain and hold wine and cheese socials, luncheons and dinners as well as other fund-raising seminars. The need to make money was also driven by the desire to provide housing for high ranking “administrators” who could live in the canyon for free and collect their six figure salaries.

During the last decade or so, the number of employees nearly tripled and the unsightly fencing was constructed so no one could come in without paying the $8 admission fee. Soon there were expanded gift shops, nurseries, and other commercial operations. More and more “events” and event facilities like the “Teahouse” and the event terraces (the latter built without proper permitting) were constructed to accommodate parties and weddings.

Soon plans were made to utilize the scenic great meadow for giant “bug” shows, and currently the large, unsightly, and long-standing “maze building” constructed as “artwork” on the Great Meadow, but in reality nothing more than another attraction to entice more and more visitors to come and pay their $8 entry fee. The county allowed it to be erected without regard for the fact that the Great Meadow, where this “maze” has loomed skyward, was designated as a county landmark, intended to remain as it always was, open and with an unobstructed mountain vista of La Cumbre Peak.

Many of those who loved the Garden and appreciated what it represented—that is, a window into the distant past, so that visitors could see what the land was like two or three hundred years ago—began objecting to these radical changes to convert the Garden to a new commercial tourist attraction. Activities which were snowballing in order to raise the increasing amount of money needed to fund the increased numbers of employees and administrators, their salaries and benefits. More and more volunteers were needed. Increasing numbers of money-raising events and rentable facilities were planned, creating even more massive traffic and parking problems on the narrow canyon roads where there is only one way in and out. Canyon residents and the fire department began raising increased concerns about the dangers of such an over-use of the confined canyon.

The first huge expansion plan was killed by the loud protests of residents and those concerned for the integrity of the Garden as well as the fact that deed restrictions had been placed on some lands by earlier donors to the Garden (which had been gifted via the Museum of Natural History) and which prohibited the buildings that were being planned.

It turns out that nearly 40 years ago the Garden had applied to the County for a mostly unnoticed “conditional use permit” ostensibly to allow an arboretum building to exceed the size allowed under the zoning, as it existed, by an additional 500 square feet of floor space. That poorly defined permit has been used since then to increase the commercial uses by various bureaucratic fiats, simply by placing additional and expanding uses on a list, out of public view, even though many of those uses were questionable and were increasingly pointed toward the commercialization of the Garden. This method of creeping commercialization avoided public scrutiny and any public disclosure of the direction the Garden was being taken. After the first mega-expansion plan’s defeat, it was not long before the powers pushing for these radical changes came back with a new expansion plan.

Having met surprising resistance to the first mega-expansion plan, an objective was perhaps inadvertently disclosed during a public site inspection at the Garden by Mr. Schneider, that is, the plan to turn the Garden into a “world class tourist attraction.” In the face of strong opposition, the trust and the administration changed their ambitious plans, at least on paper, and they hired a noted public relations firm. They then spent millions of donated dollars that could have been used to make needed and modest improvements to the Garden. Instead, they used these funds to promote this plan they now euphemistically called the “Vital Mission Plan.”

When the recent Jesusita fire struck the upper canyon it damaged the Garden and took several homes, including my mother’s. Apparently not one to allow an opportunity to pass, the PR staff for the Garden undertook an expensive advertising campaign including television commercials to sell the idea that the Vital Mission Plan was now needed to save the Garden from the ravages of the fire. (No mention was made of the $6 million received in insurance proceeds.) Sixty or so volunteers who had worked tirelessly at the Garden for free in the past, had already walked off the job earlier before the fire, because of concerns that some of the lesser-ranked but experienced and well-liked paid employees were laid off just so the upper-level management could continue to receive high salaries, free housing, and other fringe benefits.

The so-called “Vital Mission Plan” is, in reality, a thinly disguised plan to continue to convert the bucolic and formerly free Botanical Garden into (in the words of Mr. Schneider) “a world class tourist attraction.”

The recirculation of part of the environmental impact report, to address issues raised about the fire plan element, which was done before the Jesusita fire occurred, provided several technical improvements that were claimed to avoid the ever-present danger of fire, but are nonetheless inadequate. Those steps taken as per the “mitigation plan” to supposedly reduce fire danger proved that the addition of fire hydrants, evacuation plans, restrictions during “the” fire season (which we now know is year round), and other claimed improvements did nothing to slow down the Jesusita fire. Three firefighters were nearly trapped and killed and the incident commander had to order the pull-back of all firefighting crews from the canyon, exacerbating the loss of unprotected homes.

Nor would these token mitigations help if hundreds of residents and hundreds of visitors had to flee from any fire or other disaster on existing roadways. The simple fact is, that the only way to provide adequate protection, to residents of the canyon and visitors to the Botanical Garden alike, is to limit the numbers of persons that can come to the Botanical Garden by eliminating most of the tourist-attracting, automobile- and bus-attracting, money-raising, and so-called educational, activities and events currently planned there!

There are already at least nine or 10 places in the Garden that can be rented out to the public and are advertised as available. The so-called “Vital Mission Plan” adds many, many more “events” to raise money, weddings, parties with amplified sounds, night lighting, alcohol and food sales, expanded retail sales, etc. If one adds up all of the potential rentals, classes to be held in the new planned larger classroom facilities and at venues outside and throughout the gardens, regular and special events, increased staff and lastly the everyday casual visitors (the latter of which are unlimited in number under this plan) it means on a given day the number of visitors on-site could easily exceed 1,000 and would present a need for over 500 parking places. Moreover, busing from remote locations like the Old Mission below are not feasible either.

The Garden’s plan, and the staff report on the plan, completely evade these clear facts and important issues by using false base-attendance assumptions; and by failing to address these many negative impacts. It no only fails to protect the safety of the canyon residents, also threatens the safety of large numbers of visitors drawn to this “tourist attraction.” The Botanical Garden now has its own marketing and promotion department! Even though the county staff’s approval purports to place some inadequate limitations on the numbers of most of these crowd attracting, revenue generating uses, there is absolutely no method provided in the plan or in any of the staff recommendations in order to police and enforce those inadequate limitations.

For those of you who are familiar with the historic and intended purposes of the Botanic Garden, the reason it was created; and for those who have enjoyed its historic and limited uses, you should be aware the Board of Supervisors will consider appeals of the woefully inadequate staff review and approval of this “Vital Mission Plan” on May 18, 2010.

This “Vital Mission Plan” is intended to fence out the non-paying public, and the fauna that used to access the water supply provided by Mission Creek. It is clearly intended to attract as many tourists to the Garden as possible. As set out earlier, this is being done in order to increase revenue to fund high-paid salaries and provide fringe benefits and free housing to key administrators. It is a plan which furthermore creates, in effect, what amounts to an isolated, fenced-in fort situated in a narrow box canyon.

There is no room for such a Fort Botanica in Mission Canyon, nor is there room to accommodate the many visitors enticed to come there purely because of the money needed to fund this admitted and burgeoning “tourist attraction,” under the guise of improving an “educational facility.”—Jim Marino


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