San Marcos Growers is one of the ag plots that the county is proposing to convert to housing. | Credit: Stuart Kasdin

Santa Barbara county is considering which lands to propose to satisfy a state mandate for new housing. In its draft proposal, the county would rezone prime agricultural lands and the Glen Annie golf course adjacent to the city of Goleta. Seventy-five percent of the county’s proposed new housing of 5,664 units for the South Coast are on parcels directly abutting the City of Goleta: 1,436 units on Glen Annie Golf Club and 2,834 units on the South Patterson Ag block south of Hollister to Ward Drive. Goleta now has around 11,000 housing units in the city, so the impacts would be dramatic.

The alternative to this course, which the county has largely opted not to pursue, is to examine the potential for development of infill, notably the commercial and vacant sites embedded within the county. The county also has opted to mostly exclude the potential increased development of properties in wealthy neighborhoods. And we don’t know why.

This orientation is very different from the county’s traditional efforts to prevent urban sprawl. For example, only last month, the county agency LAFCO rejected a proposal by Lompoc to rezone 148 acres of prime agricultural land into roughly 2,700 homes and commercial space. In their discussion on the topic, they observed how, just as Santa Barbara County is in the top one percent in the value of its agricultural products in the U.S., so too was Los Angeles in the 1950s. Over time, orange groves and truck farms disappeared to low-density subdivisions. They noted that “We asked the city to show that no other housing options exist, and today the city has not met that burden.”

That is precisely what Goleta asks of the county. Instead of a systematic approach to assessing existing buildout capacity, the county’s draft Housing Element goes straight to conversion of sensitive agriculturally zoned lands. Converting agricultural lands should be a last resort, not the first option.

Understandably, the county is concerned about what the state will accept. The county planning staff believes that without explicit statements of intent to build from landowners, the state housing agency will never accept the county’s housing submission. However, relying on such landowner statements of commitment is invariably very limiting.

For a new housing development, it’s generally hard to know what will be profitable; it depends on expected interest rates, housing rents, tax write-offs, whether any partners are available, as well as a clear understanding of what state and city incentives are likely to be available.

Only in the case of converting agricultural lands to residences is it relatively easy to get a landowner’s pre-commitment to build because the conversion is so profitable. Thus, if a statement of intent from landowners is a pre-requisite to proposing housing, one is almost driven to focus on agricultural lands.

However, lack of stated or explicit developer interest should not be a sufficient reason to exclude sites. To address possible lack of interest and to further expand housing potential where there is existing capacity, the county could expand incentive policies and programs, potentially allowing for increased density, decreased parking requirements, increased allowed heights, decreased setbacks, increased funding resources, priority processing, and other regulatory tools to promote housing in areas where there is existing residential land use capacity.

The failure to receive a property owner’s explicit commitment to develop today may not reflect what happens to a property after it were rezoned. Managers of malls may not have experience creating with big developments, and they need time and partners to work through a project and see what pencils out. Or perhaps, a landowner will sell the land once it is rezoned to someone with experience in producing residential developments. The burden will be not just on the landowners, but on the county staff to facilitate and incentivize the project.

Thus, the county should include potential sites in their inventory of housing sites where it makes sense from a planning perspective. If the county’s systematic analysis of existing buildout capacity and any related regulatory changes to support increased housing production do not meet the county’s housing target, they could consider rezoning certain commercial and industrially zoned parcels to residential zoning, where parcels are located along major arterials. Agriculturally zoned lands should be protected from conversion unless the existing buildout capacity and non-agricultural rezones by themselves cannot accommodate the housing goal.

One of the problems with the county planning presentation draft proposal is that there was no justification for why these selected sites make sense, except that the state HCD agency would accept that. Expediency is not a good basis for a rationale. What would help would be to show the priority-setting, evaluation scheme. Have the non-selective sites been evaluated and ranked according to a planning criteria? Faced with a zero-sum game, in which cities like Goleta wonder why their sites were included and areas like Hope Ranch excluded, providing a basis for the decisions would be helpful.

For example, from a planning perspective, it is difficult to understand the proposed rezone of the Glen Annie Golf Club from agriculture to high density residential. This site is located outside the urban/rural limit line, in a high fire hazard area, on steep slopes in the Santa Ynez foothills. There is no access to the site except through the City of Goleta, with only one point of ingress and egress. Fire and emergency response constraints are very concerning and have been pointed out by the county fire chief.

Good planning matters. In Southern California, historically, new housing was added via sprawl — single-family housing replaced open space, with new houses added at points farther and farther away. It was relatively easy and inexpensive to create new housing. But as the nearby open space disappeared, creating new housing has become more difficult, and the rate of housing creation has fallen.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, the traffic design was not originally built to accommodate areas of dense housing such as apartment buildings and other multifamily housing. There are limits to how many lanes the county can add to roads. Moreover, as L.A. County continued to grow out, certain major arterial roads (like the 405, the 110, and 10) received more and more traffic from the expanded city. As a result, vehicle-miles-traveled per person and the traffic congestion have become nightmarish.

The point is that the sprawl-based model is a dead end. We should be learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions, not repeating their mistakes. The approach that the City of Goleta is advocating is to rely on infill, that is to build out from within. To develop the existing commercial lots by creating more density and using mixed use development does mean some rezoning and upzoning, as well as other incentives. It means that planning is needed.

In practice, we can add more housing and retain the open spaces, without a destruction of the neighborhoods and community health. Sensitively designed infill that respects context can help reduce congestion by making other travel modes (e.g., biking, walking) more attractive. Planning can preserve the public spaces, walkable settings, and other urban amenities that people appreciate. If Santa Barbara County is going to be able to add housing in a sustainable and non-gimmicky way, we need to have this discussion.

Stuart Kasdin is a councilmember for the City of Goleta.


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