Credit: Courtesy

Not that anyone’s counting, but in the battle between Montecito homeowners and the County of Santa Barbara over the East Mountain Drive public right of way, the rocks and plants are ahead three to zip over the county — but the war’s hardly over. Ahead are hearings, motions, and a trial.

The heat was turned up on June 22, when 11 properties near the Hot Springs trailhead received letters advising them to remove their illegal right-of-way encroachments or face hundreds of dollars in daily fines and fees. The county was already under an injunction not to take any action within a half-mile of the trailhead from a May 6 ruling. At a hearing on June 28, Judge Thomas Anderle said that injunction continued to apply and that the county had to rescind its notice letters.

In a declaration to the court, one resident said she’d gone ahead and consulted with contractors after receiving the county’s letter, which she’d found “very distressing.” This individual had received encroachment permits from the county two decades ago to plant oak trees in the right of way, as well as to landscape with rocks, boulders, and ground cover. Her contractor told her parking was not allowed within an oak tree’s drip line under the county’s own regulations and advised against removing the trees.

The geothermal sulfur springs up the canyon are at the root of the dispute, plus neighborhood-wide concerns over fire evacuation when visitors park higgledy-piggledy along the roads, scores of them attracted by TikTok videos of hikers enjoying themselves in the hot waters. Blame it on the pandemic.

The neighbors are trying to get the trail usage under control, offering to pay for extra staffing at the eight-car parking area. Currently manned by Triumph Security, the guards are there in the late afternoon to educate the public, said Jeff Lindgren, head of County Parks, letting hikers know that the first third of a mile to the springs is county land and closed at dusk. In 2021, the county limited parking on narrow Riven Rock Road, and then sent notices to three homeowners this past February to remove their stuff from the right of way to add parallel parking spots. Four homeowners near the trailhead, none of whom had received February letters, sued for the injunction to halt the county’s work, saying an environmental review should come first.

To explain the mailing of the new set of letters, County Counsel argued that the county intended to file a cross-complaint and needed to preserve its rights through the notice letters, which necessarily had to include the penalties and deadline. However, Judge Anderle stated in his ruling: “County has implicitly violated the spirit of the Court’s Order if not violating it explicitly.” Anderle wrote he was also inclined to find the county in contempt — and face potentially paying the opposition’s attorney fees of more than $14,000 — but that argument will be heard on July 27. Anderle ended the hearing by advising both sides to resolve the case outside the court.

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