Santa Barbara City Council Temporarily Bans Granny Flats in High Fire Zones

Also Unanimously Approves New Hotel for Ed St. George

The council voted unanimously to enact an emergency ban on new granny-flat applications and in favor of Ed. St. George’s (above) revised plans for a three-story, 33-room hotel proposed for the 300 block of East Montecito Street. | Credit: Paul Wellman

Nearly two months after Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to eliminate local controls that might hinder the development of new granny flats ​— ​otherwise known as accessory dwelling units (ADUs) ​— ​the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to enact an emergency ban on new granny-flat applications in parts of town where steep and narrow roads make mass evacuations challenging if not impossible. This temporary ban also applies to historically significant properties that might be compromised by such development and could last for as long as a year.

In this time, the council and city staff will attempt to craft local ordinances that comply with the state’s radical new hands-off doctrine when it comes to housing regulations, while also addressing the health-and-safety concerns expressed by city Fire Marshal Joe Poiré and traffic engineer Derrick Bailey. They contend the potential onslaught of new granny flats in certain single-family neighborhoods could generate enough additional traffic and congestion ​— ​especially in times of fire ​— ​to constitute an imminent threat to public safety.

Whether it’s possible for the council to draft anything that meets the Legislature’s newfound sense of urgency when it comes to California’s housing crisis remains to be seen. But without the emergency measure enacted by the council, Santa Barbara’s own granny-flat ordinance would have been deemed null and void as of January 1. In its place would have been the state’s less-restrictive language.

The state’s new law is unfettered when it comes to parking demands, size limits, and owner-occupancy requirements compared to the ordinance adopted by the council last May. In addition, the state’s new law allows multiple granny flats to be built on parcels with multi-family housing, as well as the conversion of garages, storage rooms, rec rooms, and carports into housing.

If every eligible property owner takes advantage of the new bill, the number of housing units within city limits could jump from 36,000 to 75,000. About 8,000 of those new units, said planner Renee Brooke, lie within the city’s foothill zone or its extreme fire zones. Given the network of narrow roads serving these zones, all that extra traffic would pose major challenges in times of fire. But even in non-emergencies, such an increase of vehicle trips would be seriously problematic.

In the past two years, 291 granny flats have been either built or approved within city limits, and another 166 are currently under review. To date, only 75 applications have been denied or withdrawn. Under current law, granny flats must be processed within 120 days; if not, they’re deemed approved. Under the new law about to take effect, that processing time is 60 days.

While some councilmembers would have liked to adopt a broader measure in defense of local control, that fervor was extinguished by practical political realities; the governor signed not one but five bills robbing local governments of discretionary authority when it comes to housing. Besides, a six-vote super-majority was required for the emergency measure to pass, and six votes did not exist for the more defiant approach.

In another housing matter, the council voted unanimously in favor of Ed. St. George’s revised plans for a three-story, 33-room hotel proposed for the 300 block of East Montecito Street. St. George changed the architecture from sharply modern to traditional Santa Barbara Spanish, reduced the square footage by about 14 percent, increased the setbacks, and agreed to replace the four units of housing he plans to demolish on-site with six units offsite somewhere within city limits.

Councilmembers praised St. George for being so quick and responsive to their concerns when the project came to them on appeal a month ago.  Even councilmembers who shared concerns that St. George might convert the hotel rooms into upscale housing for City College students ​— ​as some of the project critics contended, given the hotel’s room sizes and floor plans ​— ​said such speculation lay outside the purview of their authority. Other councilmembers, like Meagan Harmon, expressed excitement about the changes and some astonishment he could craft them so fast.  

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