Landlord and developer Ed St. George stood in front of the Santa Barbara Planning Commission last Thursday afternoon — hat firmly on his head and not in hand — and took his lumps. “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize,” said St. George, who in recent months has become both a charismatic and polarizing force on the Santa Barbara Mesa. “What I did was wrong.”
St. George was referring to the 39 trees he cut down without city permits at the 97-unit apartment complex he purchased two years ago by the intersection of Loma Alta and Cliff Drive, now known as Beach City. Of those, 36 were eucalyptus trees used by monarch butterflies as a winter roosting habitat. Many were part of an officially designated environmentally sensitive habitat. St. George explained he cut the trees down because they provided cover to multiple homeless encampments on the sprawling property abutting Honda Creek. He worried about fires, he explained, and whether some of the squatters posed a potential physical threat to his tenants, almost exclusively out-of-town City College students.
St. George found himself squarely on the hot seat last week — and facing up to $91,000 in possible fines — for planting a row of palm trees without permits, expanding the parking lot by 25 additional spaces, building a bocce ball court, installing a concrete ping-pong table, and making numerous changes of a visually spiffy nature to the exterior of his apartment complex. In all the many public meetings held over the past five months to discuss St. George and his ambitious plans — since withdrawn — to transform the once bedraggled apartments into massive new City College dorms, this was the first time he has ever apologized.
For the most part, St. George’s contrition played well with the planning commissioners, who lauded his plans to restore the habitat he destroyed — planting 240 new trees and creating what he called the biggest oak woodland in city limits. They also liked his five-year monitoring plan. What will become of the $91,000 fine, however, still remains to be seen. Less persuaded was the legion of neighborhood activists who came unglued when St. George announced he hoped to transform his apartments — now home to roughly 500 City College students — to dorms capable of holding 1,500. One critic noted with quiet disapproval that St. George never took off his hat, even while inside a government building. Others were less muted.
“Beach City was not built on ignorance,” exclaimed Diane Greenwood. “It was built on greed.” St. George, she charged, owns 50 rental buildings throughout the South Coast and knows full well what permits are necessary. “He knows the rules all too well,” she said. Beebe Longstreet, a 20-year member of the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee and longtime advocate for the lower Westside, said St. George was happy to apologize for things he should have sought permission in the first place. “I don’t want others to see this as an alternative for going through the process,” she said.
Most outspoken of all the planning commissioners was Michael Jordan, who castigated both St. George and his critics. Jordan said he still found St. George’s transgressions “disgusting,” but that’s better than “obscene,” which was how Jordan said he felt before St. George finally apologized. For too long, Jordan complained, St. George insisted on defending his actions. Jordan also directed sharp disapproval at St. George’s critics for attacking him on so personal a level. St. George announced two weeks ago he was holding back on his grander plans for a few years in response to sharply personal attacks to which he said he’s been subjected.
Some of the targets of Jordan’s wrath felt unfairly criticized and took their concerns to other planning commissioners. They were being penalized, said one, for availing themselves of the public process. Another said Jordan’s remarks brought her to tears. Jordan, known for a rough-hewn bluntness at times, lives on the Mesa and is the most immediately familiar of all the commissioners with the problems between City College and surrounding neighborhoods. By demonizing St. George, he explained later, he worried the neighbors had blown any opportunity to engage St. George in dialogue over the real issues. He insisted that these issues — high- density housing springing up in residential neighborhoods — are not going away no matter what Ed St. George does or doesn’t do at Beach City.