The Randall Road debris basin has one remaining immovable parcel on its map, the Montgomery parcel (blue), which has met the irresistible force of Santa Barbara County's power of eminent domain. | Credit: Courtesy

The big dig on Randall Road may be a swan song for Tom Fayram, who has been a linchpin at County Public Works for going on 35 years; he has plans to retire in December. Fayram begged to defer all the credit for the new debris basin to the community, especially Curtis Skene, for working to gain consensus for the giant swale in the heart of Montecito, while Skene has insisted that Fayram’s decades of experience and his reputation is what opened doors to the successful Federal Emergency Management Agency and California Office of Emergency Services grant process.

The Randall Road basin has one remaining immovable parcel on its map, which has met the irresistible force of Santa Barbara County’s power of eminent domain. A couple of technicalities has the county headed for a court determination of whether 630 Randall Road can be taken for the sum of $1,346,000.

Tom Fayram, deputy director for Public Works, at the groundbreaking for the Randall Road debris dam on May 3, 2021. | Credit: Lael Wageneck/S.B. County Public Works

Owned by Catherine Montgomery, who lost her husband, eminent hand surgeon Dr. Mark Montgomery, and her eldest daughter, 22-year-old Caroline, at that property during 2018’s 1/9 Debris Flow, the land is all she has left of her marriage, she told supervisors on August 3, aside from her wedding ring. Montgomery’s son survived the flood and a second daughter was in New York City at the time with her mother, who has a successful business there.

In the aftermath of the tragedy suffered by the Montecito community — first an all-enveloping fire, then debris flows down all its watercourses that took 23 lives — the county engaged with FEMA in strategizing a way to purchase all the properties destroyed on Randall Road to create a new eight-acre debris basin. Montgomery said she’d been told by a county employee that the county would not take her property. Her attorney, Todd Amspoker of Price, Postel & Parma, showed documentation from FEMA that stated neither federal nor county authorities could use the funds if eminent domain were employed to acquire property.

Board of Supervisors Chair Bob Nelson commented that it was unfortunate that a county employee made an assertion for a decision reserved to the supervisors. He later told the Independent that the FEMA prohibition on the use of eminent domain applied to funds from the Hazard Mitigation Assistance grant program. Instead, the county intended to buy the Montgomery property through South Coast Flood Zone funds at Public Works.

Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Montecito, echoed Nelson’s regret and apologized to Montgomery, saying he couldn’t imagine what she has been through. “For me,” he said, “that is the very reason why we must proceed with this project.” The debris basin would maximize safety downstream, and it wasn’t just the supervisors asking for her property, Williams said. “It is the public, the people of Montecito, the people of Santa Barbara County who are demanding a greater level of safety.”

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Work is underway at Randall Road in the first phase of the project. The second phase had awaited attempts to talk with Catherine Montgomery. Public Works’ Maureen Spencer explained to the supervisors that the properties surrounding Montgomery’s had already been acquired, and the second phase of the project — which the county wanted to finish before the winter rains came — could not be accomplished without it, nor would the basin be as large as the county wanted without it. As well, the county had offered Montgomery an easement for the property and to build a memorial for her and her family.

Montgomery rejected those offers. She remained uninterested in selling, her attorney said, while noting that the property to her immediate north was purchased by the county for $4 million, though it had suffered equivalent damage. He claimed it had been purchased for $3.9 million in 2016: “How that property could be acquired by the county for $4 million is frankly a mystery to me. It’s just odd that there is such a situation when this owner north of Mrs. Montgomery’s property somehow made a substantial profit between the time the property was purchased in 2016 and the time that the county purchased it.”

In fact, the property to Montgomery’s north was nearing a rebuild when the county bought it; the purchase kept it from becoming even more valuable. Debris basin proponents have repeatedly said the county needed to convince FEMA that it could seriously dig a big pit in the midst of a wealthy community and that the huge outlay did the trick, with the money coming from Flood Control’s budget. As a result, Santa Barbara County received an unprecedented $13.5 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which rarely funds more than $5 million for projects like the Randall Road Debris Basin.

It was a team effort, as are so many Public Works projects, Tom Fayram said. “Our team in Public Works simply does amazing things,” he said. “The [Tajiguas] Resource Recovery Project is a classic example of a huge, complicated project that the team delivered.” As deputy director for Public Works and head of Flood Control, Fayram will leave in place an experienced team that includes Spencer, a biologist and environmental resources manager who has been given increasing responsibility; and Jon Frye, the county’s flood control district manager, who received an award for excellence from the Floodplain Management Association in July.

Williams noted that Fayram “opened doors with FEMA and put his credibility on the line to spend a large portion of his Flood Control account” on the first $4 million property. Williams added that whenever the county went to Washington to seek funding, “Tom not only got appointments; we got to talk to the boss’s boss. That makes a difference when you’re trying to pull off a project like this.”

Fayram practically shrugged off his accomplishments, preferring to point to the Transportation Division that cares for county roads, “a thankless job everyone takes for granted every day.” All of Public Works’ programs were just part of the daily job, he said, one that he has been honored to be a part of. His wife retired last December as a school principal after 33 years in education, and Fayram said he was looking forward to joining her in “the adventures ahead.”

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