Santa Barbara County had its much-hyped day at the California Coastal Commission this Thursday and, after more than three hours of deliberations, the 12-member state agency voted overwhelmingly to deny the bulk of the county’s requests. The meeting, which was held in Santa Monica, marked the latest chapter in the ongoing tug of war between the county and the commission as the supes work to update county land use codes in such a way that the coastal portions of it are deemed to be compliant with the Coastal Act.
Despite acknowledging the county’s worries about having its local authority usurped and coastal zone agriculture operations detrimentally impacted, the commission ultimately voted 10-2 in favor of a land use code update that incorporates all of the controversial modifications (with one slightly tweaked toward the county’s wants and wishes) its staff has spent the past six months hashing out with S.B. County staffers. “It’s not that we don’t trust you. I do trust you,” explained Commissioner Esther Sanchez to the Santa Barbara County representatives in attendance. “But I believe you need to have these [modifications] in place.”
Specifically, the county, which was represented in Santa Monica on Thursday by 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr and County Planning’s Glenn Russell and Dianne Black, was particularly concerned with five modifications plied upon it by the Coastal Commission staff. After finding common ground or outright agreement with 32 other suggested modifications over the course of the the past 18 months, the county — very much reflecting the majority of the public testimony presented to it during public comment at recent supervisors’ hearings on the topic — was bothered by suggestions that would, among other things: require a coastal development permit (CDP), with possible appeals all the way to the Coastal Commission itself, for farmers and ranchers in the coastal zone who wish to change or expand their operations in such a way that more than 50 cubic yards of earth need to be graded; prevent the construction of any new private staircases to the beach while limiting the the amount of restoration and replacement allowed for existing ones; make it necessary to get a CDP, with appeals possible, for any and all coastal lot line adjustments and mergers; and require a CDP with appeals for any proposed primary residence on ag-zoned land in the coastal zone that exceeds 5,000 square feet.
Presenting the county’s case, Farr — who eloquently invoked the sheer and mostly untouched beauty that is the Gaviota Coast as evidence of S.B. County’s ability to protect itself from, well, itself — thanked the commission for their years of work in helping protect the county’s coast but urged it to not “usurp” the local land use process. The risk, Farr said, was that agriculture, the backbone of our county’s economy and already an unendingly difficult line of work, would be hit hardest by the modifications and further burdened with new rules and regulations that would require more time and more money to navigate. “We all know and appreciate that it is not an accident that the Santa Barbara coastline looks the way it does … But my board does not understand what problems we are trying to solve with these modifications,” explained Farr.
After a motion by Santa Barbara-based Commissioner Dan Secord to honor the county’s request failed, and other attempts at delaying parts of the vote so as to potentially continue to work toward a compromise on the stickier suggestions also were shot down — a Coastal Commission staff member actually testified that more time would make no difference at all in changing their position on the modifications — the commission, led by Commissioner Sara Wan, voted to maintain its stance that the modifications must be incorporated in the county’s land use plan if it hopes to get it certified.
However, after a particularly helpful back and forth between Commissioner Steve Blank, staff members, and Gaviota rancher Paul Van Leer, the commission decided to increase the amount of grading needed to force a CDP and possible appeal from the previously proposed 50 cubic yards of dirt to a new threshold of 100 cubic yards.
Even with that mild compromise and a few others related to keeping horses on residential land and the potential future expansion of the Vista del Mar school in Gaviota, the end result on Thursday was not at all what the county supervisors had been hoping for. As a result, they are left with a definite rock-and-hard-place situation: They can either accept the mandate of the state agency, incorporate the modifications into the county’s Land Use Code updates, and finally close the books on an exhausting and important process they began a decade ago, or they can fire back at the commission and simply refuse to make the changes.
By adopting the latter option, the supervisors would forfeit any hope, at least for now, of having a certified local coastal plan, a move that — besides basically throwing out 10 years of hard work — would open the door for having any and all projects in the coastal zone of Santa Barbara County potentially appealed to the Coastal Commission in the months and years ahead. The supes are scheduled to revisit the issue in early December.