Council Preview: Desal Plant, High-Density Housing, Zoning Info Reports, and Bike Plan

A Whole Lot of Push Will Come to Shove on Tuesday

Santa Barbara's dormant water desalination plant.
Paul Wellman

This Tuesday’s Santa Barbara City Council meeting promises to become the proverbial long day’s journey into night, followed by an even longer evening session. Participants are advised to eat in advance to modulate blood sugar levels; catheters are strictly optional. But assuming action is eventually taken, a whole lot of rubber appears poised to hit the road.

Most notably, the council is being asked to sign on a $55 million dotted line to reactivate its long-mothballed desalination plant. While there’s little reason to believe the outcome is anything but inevitable — the contract will be ratified — the price tag is well above the $18 million initially estimated and the $42 million subsequently projected. In addition to sticker shock, weather predictions for a very powerful El Niño in the coming year have prompted some to question the now-or-never urgency of the project. Project supporters note that less-than-average rains attended half of the past six major El Niño events to hit Santa Barbara.

And given that Lake Cachuma is projected to stop making new deliveries in the coming water year, the stakes could not be higher. Adding another uncomfortable wrinkle to the decision-making process was this weekend’s descent of more than a few fat raindrops, accompanied by the music of thunder and lightning, and the fact that last month city residents voluntarily cut back their water consumption from the same time a year ago by a full 40 percent. And that’s before the new rate increases — designed to pay for the desal plant — have gone into effect.

On a different front, neighbors on the 1800 block of Castillo Street — led by former city councilmember Brian Barnwell — are appealing the Architectural Board of Review’s approval of a three-story, seven-unit housing development sanctioned by City Hall’s experimental new program to encourage high-density housing with the expectation they will yield smaller developments with smaller units and hence be “affordable by design.” Barnwell and the neighbors contend that the project is not small enough nor are the units provided.

They complain that the ABR made no site visits before approving the project and that no story poles were ever installed to show how high the new project would loom over neighboring structures. A three-story project, the neighbors argue, is out of character with all the one-story buildings nearby. City planners counter that a two-story building with a third-story element abuts the site of the proposed new development. Likewise, they contend that the size of the units meets the requirements conjured by exceptionally complicated zoning formulas.

In May, the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury recommended that the mandatory Zoning Information Reports (ZIRs) required before any property within city limits can change hands be made voluntary. At City Hall, these reports are seen as critical in detecting the construction of illegal units, unsafe housing, parking problems, and other zoning violations at odds with the character of the neighborhoods in question. But over time, the reports have generated considerable outrage by homeowners and real estate brokers, who point out that the information recorded is often wrong and incomplete. Worse, they contend, the enforcement actions stemming from these reports have been arbitrary and capricious. In some instances, one city planner might require no action be taken and two owners later, a new city planner might require prohibitively expensive changes.

Despite insistence by the real estate industry that the ZIRs be scrapped outright, City Hall has voted to maintain the mandatory reports but has also enacted a series of reforms designed to work out what all parties concede are some serious bugs. City planners have said the Grand Jury report was issued after they’d already begun initiating improvements to the reporting system.

At the 6 o’clock evening session, the council will deliberate on the first draft of a new bicycle master plan, hatched after an extensive public outreach program involving multiple community workshops, polling, and an interactive website. The city’s existing bike master plan is more than 20 years old and out-of-date. Propelling the new blueprint is a core belief that local government needs to create genuine choice of transportation for its residents and allow for options other than the automobile. In theory, this sounds blandly idealistic, but in practice, it can be radioactive. That’s because if bicycles are really given a share of the road, motorists — whether moving or parked — will be forced to make accommodations.

Supporters point out Santa Barbara’s surge in workers who commute to and from their jobs via bike. By making roads safer for cyclists, they argue the city could become a genuine trailblazer when it comes to bicycle commuting rather than the follower it currently is. Critics object that cyclists are — and will always be — a marginal component of the city’s commuter population. Given Santa Barbara’s network of narrow streets and its huge unmet infrastructure needs, they contend it’s not worth the inconvenience or the cost to accommodate additional bikers.

No action is planned to come out of Tuesday’s discussion. Instead, it’s to give city traffic planners a better sense of the council’s comfort level in where and how far they think the envelope can be pushed to create more and safer space on streets for cyclists. Specifically on the table are plans to create green-striped bike lanes along Micheltorena and Cota streets to better accommodate cyclists making the east-west trek across town. Both streets are lined by high-density apartments, and the loss of on-street parking such changes would entail could prove contentious.

There’s also a plan to create a Class I bike lane along Modoc Road, and extend the Bath and Castillo street lanes further toward Cottage Hospital and Sansum Clinic. There’s also thought about making Laguna and Olive streets one way — though in opposite directions — like Haley and Gutierrez streets. By so doing, each street could handle a greater flow than they currently do, even while carving out lane space for bicyclists, like Bath and Castillo streets. Finally, there’s also talk about creating “bicycle boulevards” along Olive, Alisos, and Cacique streets.


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