Joan Hartmann (left) and Laura Capps | Credit: Courtesy

Now that the county planning department has assembled a complete list of sites that could be rezoned to meet the state-mandated requirement of 4,142 new residential units to be built in the unincorporated areas of the South Coast over the next eight years, it falls on the Board of Supervisors to narrow down that list, and decide which areas will be offered up and which will be saved, in the name of Santa Barbara’s housing crisis.

The county recently added 19 more sites to its list of potential rezones in response to more than 430 letters received over the 30-day public comment period in the month of March. Planning and Development Director Lisa Plowman provided a breakdown on the new sites and the other updates during Tuesday’s board meeting, where the Board of Supervisors chimed in on the progress as the county enters the next 90-day review period with the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

Mixed Messages

Throughout the planning process, county planners and leadership have had a difficult time decoding the state’s convoluted housing handbook and Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) system, which has forced local jurisdictions to twist themselves in knots trying to meet the state’s mixed signals.

“In my sense, looking at the HCD handbook, there’s almost a schizophrenia,” said Supervisor Joan Hartmann. More specifically, she explained, the state seemed to encourage the “value in protecting agricultural lands,” while at the same time making it “extremely difficult” to develop infill housing. “The threshold of evidence that’s required seems to be very high.”

Plowman agreed and said Santa Barbara County is in an even more complicated situation because some of its agricultural lands are in prime position for housing — according to the state’s criteria — since they are located in the “urban core” with ready access to schools and public transit. In the state’s eyes, some of the agricultural sites that would typically be defended from development are actually much better candidates than sites on the outskirts of the county where dense housing would be out of place. “So it’s a little bit tricky,” Plowman said.

The county also received mixed messages from the public — out of the 430 letters received, 32 asked that the county preserve agriculture and open space, 39 wrote in opposition to the South Patterson agricultural block rezone, three were in opposition to the San Marcos Growers rezone, and 174 were written in opposition to the Glen Annie Golf Course rezone and Goleta’s housing allocation. Comments also supported the Glen Annie development and other housing on agricultural lands, opposed Carpinteria’s allocation, and suggested even more sites for development.

“It was really a full, broad range of public comment,” Plowman said, “and I think we got a lot of good information in that process which resulted in changes that we’ve made to the Housing Element.”

A Little from Everywhere

The 19 new sites added as potential rezones included seven county-owned sites (three at the Calle Real campus, two on Hollister Avenue, and two in downtown Santa Barbara); two new sites in Montecito (Rosewood Miramar and Biltmore Hotel both offered up parking lots as workforce housing); a vacant lot next to Friendship Manor in Isla Vista; two parcels in the Eastern Goleta Valley; and three UC Santa Barbara staff/faculty housing projects that could account for 730 units. Altogether, the potential sites give the board more than 7,000 more units to choose from to meet the state’s RHNA of 4,152 in the South County.

The Housing Element draft now includes creating a study about developing a long-term funding source for affordable housing, similar to one recently begun in the City of Santa Barbara. Another change would amend the Montecito Growth Management Ordinance to facilitate more housing in Montecito. Critics had complained that Montecito was not giving its fair share toward the county’s RHNA numbers.

Supervisor Hartmann said she was glad to see UCSB’s contribution of staff and faculty housing projects and 730 units included toward the county’s RHNA, but said that the university really owes the county 1,800 units by 2025. The County of Santa Barbara and City of Goleta are in open litigation with the university over the matter.

“We’re in the predicament we’re in, in part, because of their failure to follow through with us and the City of Goleta,” Hartman said.

Supervisor Laura Capps doubled down on the criticism, saying that “UCSB’s inability and negligence” has impacted and exacerbated the housing crisis in Isla Vista, leading to the current situation where hundreds of low-income tenants can be evicted at once, as made evident with the CBC & the Sweeps building just a few weeks ago.

Capps asked if the county could request that the state also count student housing toward RHNA, to which Plowman responded that they could explore an agreement with the university similar to the memorandum of understanding between UC Berkeley and the City of Berkeley, but “if the units don’t get built, we’re kind of in the same situation that we’re in now.”

Peeling Back

While planning staff did refer to a few other properties that could be looked at for future housing — including the Bacara, whose owners expressed interest in workforce housing similar to those proposed by the Montecito hotels; and the former QAD campus in Summerland, which is owned by the UC Regents and may be explored for mixed-use development — Plowman said that now the focus is on narrowing down the options as opposed to adding more sites.

Supervisor Capps agreed, saying that any added sites were only being included to give the board more flexibility to preserve agricultural lands or other properties that the public deemed controversial. 

Now, the goal is to work on a programmatic environmental impact report and complete the busy work of implementing the policy changes so the county will be prepared to approve all changes when the Housing Element is ready for adoption in the winter, with all rezones to be complete by February 2024.

These changes will hopefully help incentivize mixed-use development in the county’s list of “secondary sites,” Plowman said, which are included in the report to the state but are not expected to be counted toward the county’s RHNA numbers due to the state’s strict criteria.

These properties include shopping centers and other commercial properties that may provide housing over the next few years due to new changes in state law such as AB 2011 and SB 6, which were passed to make developing these sites much easier in the future.

“We are not asking HCD to bless it; we are not asking them to count this as meeting our RHNA,” Plowman said of the secondary sites. “But it gives us the opportunity to acknowledge that we’re making steps to encourage this type of housing development.”

The county officially submitted its updated draft for a 90-day state review on March 31, and over that time, planning staff will host two separate workshops for public comment (North and South County). Following comments from HCD, the county will either update the draft or prepare the document for adoption by the end of the year. The Board of Supervisors received the report but took no action at the meeting.


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