Seafood for sale at the Santa Barbara Fish Market
Paul Wellman (file)

Dave Blunk knows how to make a stink. Early Monday afternoon, Blunk — who runs a motorcycle repair shop on the Eastside — and a crew of about six cohorts walked into the City of Santa Barbara’s zoning and planning building on Garden Street armed with a bucket of dead fish. Four tilapia to be exact. For good measure, Blunk had let the fish fester in the sun for nearly two days. They’d gotten sufficiently ripe, he said — he almost puked on the drive over. Inside the government building, the effect was less dramatic. “It wasn’t real bad, but it could fill up a room eventually,” he said.

Blunk is one of the ringleaders for a group residents complaining about the loud noise and penetrating stench they say emanates from the Santa Barbara Fish Market’s new warehouse and processing plant located at 528 North Quarantina Street. Blunk claimed City Hall had been unresponsive to their repeated complaints and the dead-fish stunt was his way of repaying the compliment.

Unbeknownst to Blunk as he walked into the government office building, he’d already won. Two days prior, Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne had notified Fish Market owner Brian Colgate — via a three-paragraph letter — his entire operation was a zoning violation just as Blunk had maintained. “You must cease seafood processing operations at this location,” Calonne stated. But Colgate only got that letter when he showed up at the Garden Street building shortly after Blunk and crew to see what the fuss was. There, city planning czar George Buell took Colgate into a private room and handed him the note. Colgate’s still figuring out how to respond.

For the past 15 years, Colgate has run the popular Santa Barbara Fish Market by the city harbor. He specializes in selling what Santa Barbara fishermen catch to local residents and restaurants, serving as a conduit between these separate universes. In November, Colgate opened up the new Quarantina Street warehouse and processing operation, which offloads fish, keeps them refrigerated, and gets them ready for market.

Neighbors on Cota Street — like Blunk — said the loud noise made by the refrigerator motors kept them up at night. Clouds infused with fish oil vapors rendered nearby backyards uninhabitable. Or so it was alleged. Colgate took pains to rectify these problems, according to city planner Danny Kato. But for the neighbors, it wasn’t enough. They hired an attorney who argued that Colgate was engaged in “fish processing and wholesaling,” rather than “food product manufacturing.”

This might seem a nitpicky distinction, but not when zoning rules are at issue. The only places where fish processing is allowed are waterfront areas zoned for “oceanfront” uses. And Colgate’s Quarantina Street plant isn’t in one of them. When City Attorney Calonne got around to looking into the matter, he weighed in with the neighbors.

The problem isn’t just that Colgate’s 47 employees could be out of jobs and his business no longer sustainable. It’s that Colgate worked hand-in-glove with City Hall planners and zoning officers every step of the way in securing the permits needed to open his new plant. Never, he insisted, were there any discouraging words. “It was green light, thumbs up, no problems, sounds good,” he recalled. “Throughout the permitting process, we disclosed 100 percent what we’re doing now. Nothing’s changed.”

Planner Kato confirms this. “Planning staff’s initial determination was allowed by zoning,” he wrote. “And we were working with the applicant to eliminate the nuisances of noise and odor.” Kato added that Colgate “took steps” to reduce the odor and was in the process of securing the permits to install noise dampeners. When the neighbors insisted Colgate’s plant was a zoning violation, Kato said, “… it took a while to work through the issue.”

What happens next is uncertain. Calonne has invited Colgate and his attorney to talk out how to proceed. In the meantime, Kato said, “Unless I receive direction otherwise, we won’t require the operation to shut down until a clear path has been established.”


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