A new terrace exhibit on the west side of the Meadow area at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is coming under scrutiny from some community members, including members of the county’s Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission (HLAC), who say they should have been forewarned that the work on the project was taking place.
The three- to five-week project-which includes the installation of a 4,025-square-foot area featuring a three-tiered exhibit space with a flagstone floor, according to a conformity request submitted by the Botanic Garden-was greenlighted by the county Planning and Development Department in mid-July. That approval came despite the fact that the landscape design of the Meadow and other structural components at the Botanic Garden are considered historically important and thus require review by HLAC. According to a 2003 Board of Supervisors resolution, no changes to the Garden could be made that “substantially deviate from the foregoing historic landscape design concept or historic use of the landmark property unless express consent in writing is first had and obtained” from HLAC. However, in a July 18 letter to Botanic Garden President Ed Schneider, Deputy Planning Director Dave Ward concluded that the project falls under the category of “continued operation and maintenance” of the Botanic Garden and therefore didn’t need HLAC approval.
The terrace, which will have large containers featuring different plants for educational purposes, will stand in the spot formerly occupied by a dying oak tree removed earlier this year from the northwest corner of the Meadow, explained Nancy Johnson, Botanic Garden vice president of development and marketing. Arborists estimated the tree’s age between 100 and 150 years old. Before its demise, the tree-which stood 40 feet high and had a girth of 21 feet-posed a safety threat because its limbs could have fallen on people, Garden officials say.
Botanic Garden member and Mission Canyon resident Paulina Conn said the project lends the Garden to uses inconsistent with its original purpose. “Many of us see this as a major change in design concept and use,” she said. But Johnson said not replacing the oak with a new one was the “choice of the people who do the horticulture in the garden.” Conn explained that Garden management decided against another oak in part because such a tree would have shaded other plants and hindered their growth. Furthermore, plant experts feared a fungus that had infected the dying oak might spread to other trees.
County planner Alex Tuttle said staff looked at the Botanic Garden’s request for the application for the terrace’s construction and decided the project could bypass HLAC review or approval. Some members of the HLAC said that even if the exhibit complied with the resolution, a gentleman’s agreement had been established with the Botanic Garden saying the commission would have an opportunity to review any changes to the Meadow. “At least we’d have some dialogue about it,” said HLAC commissioner Sue Adams. “We felt we had an understanding. Along with the degradation on the Meadow is the degradation of the agreement.” HLAC commissioner John Woodward, an attorney, took it further, suggesting that not approaching the HLAC could be cause for a lawsuit. Nobody on county staff alerted commission members of the planned work, and the matter wasn’t placed on the most recent HLAC agenda. “I’m really disturbed that when you sit on the commission, that the bulldozers are at work when you first hear about it,” Woodward said.
In response, Johnson said the agreement with the county is only the historic landmarks resolution passed by the Board of Supervisors and that Garden management was in compliance. The matter has been placed on the HLAC’s agenda for its August 13 meeting. In addition to a briefing on the exhibit, Tuttle said staff will be looking for further guidance on when the HLAC wants to be involved in smaller projects.