HOT SPOT: An impasse over parking at Hot Springs hiking trail, where Riven Rock meets East Valley Road in Montecito, holds problems for hikers, residents, and the county. | Credit: Bryan Rosen

The tussle over parking between the hiking public and Montecito homeowners living near Hot Springs trail has been heating up these past couple of months. The trailhead sits along the foothills at East Mountain Road, leading up past homes into the Santa Ynez Mountains.

Credit: Montecito Trails

When the natural hot springs reopened to the public in 2018 after the Thomas Fire, hikers began arriving in increasing numbers, parking their cars helter-skelter in lines extending down Riven Rock Road. “Hot springs are very popular destinations all over the world,” observed Ashlee Mayfield, president of the Montecito Trails Association, explaining the newfound popularity of the trail. Word had gotten out that the springs were back after the water company that is entitled to half the water, and had used it all under what appears to have been a gentleman’s agreement dating to the 1900s, was required to relinquish 50 percent in 2018.

County public safety officials began to worry that the parking chaos would lead to traffic problems. One road-clearing solution was to paint lane lines along Riven Rock Road, a narrow two-lane road that “T”s into East Mountain Drive near the trailhead, to define clearly where parking was allowed. 

But this resulted in the loss of 50 parking spots, the county states in its legal papers. Hikers responded by parking closer to the creek and anywhere else they could fit a vehicle. Homeowners, according to the county, then began putting “yellow tape, rocks, signs, and other things” along the road, blocking areas of the right of way to discourage the haphazard parking.

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After a right-of-way survey, the county held a neighborhood meeting in October 2021 to explain the goal was to remove encroachments and restore five to six parking spaces to both the east and west of the trailhead. According to a declaration filed by the first attorney for the petitioners, Joe Cole (a former publisher of the Independent), an agreement was reached between the county and the residents that the county would hold off on the work until after Montecito Fire’s new evacuation study came out in May. This would also give time to find other parking slots. A public-private partnership had identified three or four spots and funded a civil engineer and architect to design the proposal.

In its letter to homeowners, the county included photos of a sign, debris, and rock in the public right of way and blocking parking access.

Instead, the county sent letters in February 2022 to the owners of three properties advising them that their landscaping, rocks, irrigation, and “no parking” signs were to be removed. The county gave the owners two months to comply, indicating county crews would otherwise do the work. It’s that work that is under a temporary restraining order by the court.

While both sides seem to want to replace the lost parking, the underlying lawsuit asks whether an environmental review isn’t first required before the county can reclaim its right of way and put parking there. Regarding the congestion issue, the homeowners state the county told them 62 new parking spaces would be created near the trailhead. This would lead to 124 more hikers in the hills at any one time and potentially more than 1,000 weekly, they estimate.

This has homeowners most worried, given the many fires in Montecito of recent memory. They claim this would impact the environment, especially the sensitive areas along the creek; increase the trash being left behind; and, should a wildfire erupt, impede outbound evacuation and inbound fire engines along a route that the Montecito Fire department is already concerned might not even be able to evacuate current residents safely. 

On May 6, the parties will be back in Judge Donna Geck’s courtroom to give their reasons for whether or not the reclaiming of the right of way should proceed.

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