The semi-circular West Wind Drive-In lies in a flood plain by the Goleta Slough and is surrounded by industrial sites. | Credit: Google Maps

From the air, the West Wind Drive-In has visible issues with flooding, bordered as it is by the Goleta Slough and the occasionally rambunctious San Jose Creek as it drops its last half-mile to the Pacific Ocean. Any new building there — owner SyWest Development is considering storage units at the site — has to keep the elevation of the building pad in mind and also bumps up against Goleta’s new height limit of 35 feet. In what SyWest hopes is a winning compromise, it has offered the city a sliver of land to add a needed width of access road down to San Jose Creek in exchange for rolling back for two extra years the zoning to the earlier height limit of 45 feet. Goleta’s Planning Commission was unconvinced, however.

SyWest has the right to be considered under the former zoning regulations; it completed its project application before a cut-off date of September 1, 2019, which was a rule settled during the years-long new-zoning-ordinance process completed a year ago. That option ends on December 31, 2021, however, and SyWest’s swap asks for an extension to December 31, 2023. In exchange, it would grant the city an easement for 2,082 square feet of land that would add 10 feet of width to the current road to an access ramp down into San Jose Creek. It’d be wide enough for two dump trucks to safely pass, which would speed up clearing the creek in flood and also during the work on the Hollister Avenue bridge, which is currently out at bid.

San Jose Creek, once a flood-prone waterway, has been channeled into a concrete canal alongside State Route 217, the broad, sweeping road out to UC Santa Barbara. Maintained by County Flood Control, the canal was widened in 2015 to keep the creeks within its walls and stop it from flooding Goleta’s Old Town. The widening ate up the broad median along the 217, formerly used for access. Goleta’s responsibility is to keep a fish channel open one the east-side of the canal, which has turned out to be a constant effort.

SyWest’s request, formalized in a Development Agreement, was broached to the Planning Commission on Monday — and ultimately goes to City Council for a final decision. It would not tie the hands of planning commissioners or design review board members when the time comes for the project itself to be considered, city staff explained. It would, however, cause an 18-foot difference in the height allowed for any new building. This is for two reasons: the change in maximum heights in the new zoning ordinance, and also a change from where it is measured — from the finished floor in the old zoning rules and from the existing grade in the new.

Because the old drive-in sits in a flood plain, explained Steve Amerikaner, the attorney for developer SyWest, a quantity of fill dirt would have to be brought in to keep any new building on dry land. Further, as the industrial building might be built to hold storage, the height of the interior was a critical factor in whether the investment would be worth the construction costs, Amerikaner said.

The deal would give the City of Goleta a small sliver of land, marked as Easement Area, which adds access to the San Jose Creek flood control channel, in exchange for allowing the developer to use old zoning rules for an extra two years; the old rules allow for 18 more feet of building height. | Credit: City of Goleta

Some of the planning commissioners were interested to know why SyWest had paused its project just as it was entering the environmental review stage in 2018. Bill Vierra, representing SyWest owner Suyfy Enterprises, described the development group as one that tended to be very conservative; it held properties for life. City staff had urged them to continue the application process, but the owners were worried over the time the environmental and other reviews would necessarily take, plus the new zoning ordinance. “We took a pause to work in an amicable way with the timeframes here and at the same time come up with what we thought was a reasonable accommodation for both parties,” Vierra said.

The new zoning ordinance had indeed affected multiple issues. Lisa Prasse, a planning manager for the city, reeled off more than a dozen items the agreement would affect, from parking and trash enclosures to setbacks and lot coverage. Two other developments are in a similar spot in the planning pipeline, Deputy City Attorney Winnie Cai said.

Before voting against advising the City Council to accept the Development Agreement as written, the chair of the commission, Katie Maynard, recalled the many meetings and extreme scrutiny that hundreds of parts of the new zoning ordinance had undergone in the past two or three years before it was finalized and passed last March. The proposed agreement was defeated by the majority of the Planning Commission on a 3-2 vote.

Correction: The fish channel in the San Jose Creek canal is to the east side, not the center.

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