After a decade of strenuous debate Santa Barbara City Council approved Plan Santa Barbara (PlanSB). PlanSB’s overarching goal is sustainability, and its introduction calls out the need to cope with “growth management, environmental stewardship, affordable housing, historic preservation and design compatibility.”
A cornerstone of the plan’s housing affordability policy is the Average Unit Density Ordinance (AUD). AUD encourages development of moderate-cost housing in the central city, replacing the recent policy that fostered upscale condominiums. The AUD Ordinance allows a higher number of smaller units on a given site and reduces parking requirements.
As a navigation aid to sustainability, PlanSB includes an Adaptive Management Strategy — a feedback loop that requires decision-makers to constantly assess consequences of policy actions. As the old saying goes, measure twice and cut once.
The AUD Ordinance requires that development stop when 250 units are ready for occupancy. No new applications can proceed until assessment of existing development is complete. However, projects in the pipeline could still proceed.
Developers’ use of the AUD has exceeded all expectations. Our normal rate of growth is around 100 units a year. But with AUD, over 1,300 units have entered the development pipeline.
Under current regulations, all 1,300 units could be built in one fell swoop. A building surge of this magnitude is likely to cause outsized traffic, noise, and parking impacts. Water consumption is another concern both today in the midst of this terrible drought and in the future.
To cope with the surge, the city can benefit from a Growth Management Ordinance. The ordinance could limit the number of new building permits issued each year to our normal growth rate. The city could then better manage the impacts that accompany development.
A second set of development requirements is also needed to help fund Santa Barbara’s infrastructure. Our streets, sidewalks, buildings, and parks are suffering from inadequate investment. New development should contribute its fair share toward developing the infrastructure necessary to support it. Santa Barbara has until now allowed development to proceed without imposing mitigation fees, in effect forcing taxpayers to subsidize the impacts of new development. In contrast, our neighboring jurisdictions charge developers $10,000-$20,000 per unit to offset projects’ demands on infrastructure.
A growth management ordinance and development mitigation fees would reduce the impacts that new development will impose on our city. They are useful tools consistent with Plan Santa Barbara’s Adaptive Management Strategy that would help the city forge a more sustainable future. We have found a way to encourage moderate-cost housing. That housing needs to blend in with our neighborhoods and to pay its fair share toward essential facilities.
Bendy White is a Santa Barbara city councilmember.