The Goleta City Council split into two camps on Tuesday, divided over the creek setback change requested by West Wind Drive-In owner SyWest for a new development proposal. That issue came to overshadow the height variance that would come into play if the council signed the Development Agreement offered by SyWest — it would allow the developer to use Goleta’s old zoning rules for two years in exchange for a piece of land the city needs. After a heated but respectful exchange, the council vote went 3:2 for the agreement.
Bill Vierra, president of SyWest, threw into the mix the vital nonprofit Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. Foodbank doubled the amount of food it gave away during the pandemic — providing more than a million meals — and one of its warehouses is in the old Direct Relief building, which Goleta bought in 2018. Leased to Foodbank for $1 a year, its transformation into an old-school train station will soon begin, and Foodbank will have to find a new warehouse. Vierra said he talked with Foodbank about loading docks and other built-ins they would need in a new location — but that it was just a conversation. SyWest’s current plans are for 70,000 square feet of warehouse space under a 43-foot-high roof — an interior that can store goods vertically as well as on the floor. It would suit Foodbank’s needs to a T; few such warehouses exist in Goleta.
Facing Goleta’s council were two much-hashed-out pieces of its New Zoning Ordinance: building heights and creek setbacks. The new ordinance also includes a provision for this exact situation: projects in the pipeline could use the old rules in exchange for a public benefit. SyWest’s project needs the old ordinance’s taller building height allowance — 45 versus 35 feet — because it’s in a flood plain and would be built atop an 8-foot-tall building pad, Vierra said. The other half of the property might remain a drive-in theater, which has a screen 70 feet tall.
In return, SyWest’s Development Agreement gives Goleta a slice of land just wide enough to allow two trucks to pass while driving back and forth into San Jose Creek Channel, enlarged in 2015 to prevent flooding in Old Town. In that $18 million project, access along State Route 217, used by County Flood Control to maintain the channel, was consumed when the city added a fish channel. According to city Public Works director Charlie Ebeling, the county was at its “wit’s end” in getting the city to comply with its obligation to provide new access from the west side — the drive-in side. Another way to get the sliver of land, said City Attorney Michael Jenkins, was to take it via eminent domain; that cost would be at least $200,000.
As Councilmember Roger Aceves put it, the Development Agreement would give the city “an immediate license to comply with a legal requirement for County Flood Control. It doesn’t mean the project is approved.”
Approval would be needed for changes to the creek setback from neighboring San Jose Creek Channel: Sywest has proposed 25 feet; the new zoning ordinance confirms it is 100 feet, as stated in the city’s General Plan; the old zoning ordinance is silent but is widely assumed to be controlled by the General Plan. It was the coming and lengthy environmental review that caused SyWest to “pause” its project until the new zoning ordinance was finished in the first place. SyWest’s 25-foot alternative setback would have environmental and other hoops through which to attempt to jump, including the Coastal Commission, which also must approve SyWest’s Development Agreement with the city.
Uncertainty became a flash point for the council. Councilmember Stuart Kasdin objected that naming Foodbank when there was no formal indication it would be a tenant was overly speculative. He was concerned that a vote for the Development Agreement gave the signal that the council was “comfortable” with a 25-foot creek buffer, or even a 50-foot buffer, as Councilmember James Kyriaco had offered as the county’s standard. “If we’re not comfortable with it, we should not put a developer through a process that’s going to end in inevitable failure,” Kasdin argued.
For his part, Kyriaco thought the setback argument was an early one to make. It was not the project that was being decided that night, he emphasized. Signing the Development Agreement gained the city the creek access it owed to the county and still kept all of its abilities to alter the project details once it was formally through environmental review and back to the city as a completed project application.
Tie-breaker Councilmember Kyle Richards observed that only two projects could claim this zoning exception, and SyWest was one of them. He wasn’t worried the vote opened the door for every other project or that they were voting to approve all the project’s elements: “I have to have confidence that the rest of the gears of our system will function and that this will be reviewed appropriately.”