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A Santa Barbara Man Fights City Hall 

When Good Neighbors Become Toxic Clean Up Sites

Architect Gil Barry at Santa Barbara City Architectural Board of Review. | Credit: Paul Wellman

I’ll spare you all the bilious blather about Trump and impeachment, an endeavor both doomed and necessary. Back when the Deep State was still worth a damn, things would never have gotten to this pass. Someone on the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations would have quietly picked up a phone, and after a quick jab from the tip of a passing umbrella, Trump’s hair would suddenly fall out and his voice would elevate an octave or two. 

And the world could move on.

Instead, we find ourselves stuck in perpetual Bizarro World where Goliath doesn’t just kick David’s ass but chucks him face first into the woodchipper of history. Desperately, I’ve been searching for alternate Davids. Two weeks ago, I stumbled onto one, during a Santa Barbara City Council open mic session.  

Speaking was Gil Barry, a longtime architect now in the autumn of his discontent. When Barry speaks, words can’t get out fast enough. Something terrible, he stated, was happening. It turned out Barry’s desperate urgency was the sort that afflicts mild-mannered men who wake up one morning to discover they’ve been living next door to a toxic chemical graveyard. For 40 years.

Barry was not happy. He lives on the Mesa with his wife, and for 30 years, their next-door neighbor was an orchid greenhouse operation, which ​— ​it turns out ​— ​used large quantities of pesticides that are so toxic and carcinogenic that the EPA banned them outright in the ’80s. Now the heirs of this property want to scrape up the contaminated payload and haul 170 truckloads of dirty dirt to points elsewhere. After that ​— ​though no applications have yet been submitted ​— ​they hope to split the three-acre lot so they can build three new ocean-view homes.

Barry worries that the dust particles kicked up during the two months it’s expected to haul away the toxic soil might give him cancer. “They picked the wrong guy to mess with,” he told me. Actually, he used a word other than “mess.” It’s the frequently used acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King.

Barry’s been known to tilt at a windmill or two before. He’s won some and lost some. Now he’s taking on City Hall, the ultimate in windmills. And this week, Barry won a significant, if procedural, victory.

Barry is not one for nuanced calibration. Contaminated runoff from the site, he warned, could easily migrate downslope and seep into the lagoon by Hendry’s Beach. His chief concern is Dieldrin, a known carcinogen that doesn’t break down and accumulates over time in one’s body fat. In one particularly inflammatory epistle, Barry wrote, “Tourists, come to Santa Barbara and give your kids cancer.”

Toxicology experts hired by the orchid heirs say if Barry ate 100 milligrams of the soil per day for 26 years, his risk of cancer would increase by just .03 percent. By contrast, they added, if Barry ate two strips of bacon a day, his chances would jump by 18 percent. A county health official sought to reassure Barry, telling him he already had a one-in-three chance of getting cancer and a one-in-six chance of dying from it.

That didn’t work.

A contractor hired by the orchid heirs offered to put Barry and his wife up ​— ​free of charge ​— ​in an ocean-front condo in Hawai‘i during the two months of excavation. That didn’t work, either. Barry turned him down. One has to wonder what Barry’s wife thinks.

Barry is also bit by the salami tactics he says agents for the orchid heirs have deployed, “piecemealing” the ultimate project into smaller components to minimize environmental scrutiny and bureaucratic review. It should be noted that the proposed soil scrape has, in fact, been reviewed and approved by the county’s Air Pollution Control District and its Department of Environmental Health Services. That being acknowledged, Barry has a point. 

Agents for the orchid heirs have been too cute by half. First, they apply only for a soil remediation permit, saving their housing plans for later. And they claim they’re exempt from having to get a coastal development permit ​— ​more onerous and time-consuming ​— ​because they are allegedly remodeling the single-family home. Planners with the City of Santa Barbara bought this side-step-two-step shuffle. 

Barry appealed to the Coastal Commission, and this week, the Coastal Commission notified Barry and City Hall that Barry was right. The orchid heirs were not entitled to the “single-family residence exemption” because their application never suggested that any structure will be improved or repaired. That means they need to get another permit, a process that will allow Barry to continue arguing for more stringent mitigation requirements. 

As now conditioned, all excavation must stop if the excavation causes dust levels to reach or exceed 50 micrograms per cubic liter. That’s not good enough, Barry insists. He’s pushing for the 25-microgram limit adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Los Angeles. County health experts caution that the L.A. standards seem more stringent than they actually are because they allow longer periods of exposure. I don’t pretend to have a competent opinion about that. But Barry does. “I’m not accepting 26 micrograms,” he stated. “I’m not accepting 30.” Then he reminded me, “They’re messing with the wrong guy.”

Gil Barry may not be an antidote to what’s happening on the national stage. But when it comes to Davids and Goliaths, I’ll take what I can get.

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