A panel of three appellate judges ruled that the Santa Barbara City Council was not entitled to approve the Veronica Meadows housing project proposed just off of Las Positas Road without first putting the matter to a vote of the people. The appellate court ruling was a decision to the same effect issued by a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge two years ago. In either case, it leaves developer Mark Lee and Veronica Meadows in the same spot — all dressed up with little place to go — they’ve been in for the past several years. It also affirms an earlier decision to award $178,000 in attorney’s fees to the two organizations — Citizens Planning Association and Urban Creeks Council — who sued to block approval of the project.
In approving the development — 25 two-story homes ranging in size from 1,800 to 4,500 square feet — the council voted in 2006 to allow Lee to build a bridge — 140 feet long and 32 feet wide — across Arroyo Burro Creek and about five acres of land that had been given to the city years before as park land. It turns out, however, that Santa Barbara voters amended the city charter in 1982 to require an election before any park land could be “sold, leased, or otherwise encumbered” to another entity. But no election would be required if the land in question would be put to a use that was consistent with or complementary to a public park.
The court of appeal was decidedly not persuaded by arguments put forth by Lee’s attorney Steve Amerikaner that the bridge was a key component to a broader plan that would increase safe access from more congested Westside neighborhoods through a 50-acre site to Hendry’s Beach. Lee had agreed to build a bicycle path through his property and to build a new light signal by the site of the proposed bridge. “Access and safety are not the purposes contemplated for the parcel which is to be burdened by the proposed bridge and roadway,” the judges opined. “It was not intended to be used to provide vehicular access to a private development.” Nor were the judges moved by Amerikaner’s more technical pleading that the council had only granted Lee a permit — which would not trigger an election — rather than an easement, which would.
Throughout the long, drawn-out battle over Veronica Meadows, Lee found himself trapped in a strategic crossfire when seeking approval for his project. If he built an entrance bridge across the creek, he’d arouse the wrath of environmentalists who want to preserve the land as undeveloped open space. Or he could build an entrance at the end of Allan Road and inflame the residents — already upset that their street is used as a spill-over parking lot when Hendry’s Beach is busy. Were Lee to try the Allan Road approach, he’d be more constrained in the number of units he could build — three as opposed to 25. (The maximum was later reduced to 22 after an amended environmental report was issued.) While the bridge offered the possibility of more units, the Environmental Impact Report cited it as a Class I negative impact — in other words a potential project killer — because it would impede the flow of wildlife using the channel as an arterial. Lee had sought to blunt the environmental opposition by promising an especially aggressive creek restoration program, but that proved insufficient.