A Red-Flag Warning

By Bob Hazard   |   March 29, 2018

As Montecito residents recover from their fifth mandatory evacuation since the start of the Thomas Wildfire, there is a growing frustration that the future fate of Montecito will not be resolved by a “Montecito Strong” community visioning plan of our own making, but by external forces outside this community’s span of control.

Fifteen weeks have passed since the Thomas wildfire, which destroyed 10 of our neighbors’ and friends’ homes and damaged an additional 37. Eleven weeks have passed since the unprecedented January 9 Montecito debris flow, which took 23 lives, destroyed an additional 160 homes and businesses, and damaged some 340 more homes in Montecito, leaving them mostly uninhabitable.

What We Know for Sure

We know that the combined fire and 1/mud-and-debris slide destroyed 170 homes and businesses while damaging another 377 in Montecito. A property tax reassessment could trigger a major drop in property valuations and future property tax collections. With only 3% of the county’s population, the County counts on Montecito to contribute 13% ($100 million) of its estimated $756 million in property tax collections.

We know that since January 9, more than 50,000 truckloads of mud, boulders, rocks, trees, and debris have been removed from Montecito and Carpinteria, but we also know thatthe quantity of boulders and debris remaining on our hillsides is most certainly greater than the quantity that came down on January 9. We know that a re-occurrence could be triggered by a rainstorm of ½ inch per hour, an earthquake, or even earth tremors strong enough to dislodge a rockslide of boulders.

We know that the entire Montecito community has been officially designated as being located within either the “Extreme-Risk” (Red), “High-Risk” (Yellow), or “High-Risk” (Grey Burn) zone. We know that homeowner insurance and flood insurance underwriters will take these designations seriously in deciding whether to continue to serve this market, or massively raise rates for declared Extreme-Risk and High-Risk zones.

We know that existing Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps for Montecito are no longer valid. Survey markers have been dislodged by the debris flow, making it impossible to identify property lot lines. Creek channels have widened and land elevations have been dramatically distorted. FEMA and the County are working to create an “interim flood hazard-recovery map” to assess where and how high water and debris are expected to flow in the future. This mapping will take at least three months, with the earliest forecast for a June 15, 2018, completion date.

We know that the Army Corp of Engineers on an emergency permit came in right after the January 9 event to clean, widen, and deepen our creek channels, remove public mud at FEMA’s expense, and create greater channel capacity for future flows. We know that made us feel somewhat safer from subsequent rain events.

We also know that the Army Corp of Engineers pulled out on February 20 when the County Board of Supervisors failed to renew their federal emergency permit. Additional efforts by the corps to provide vital new or enlarged protective debris basins, build temporary bridges, fund the removal of mud on private property, clear the channels, or install emergency bridges would require a new permit, a difficult task in a non-catastrophic emergency environment.

What We Do Not Know

We do not know when the next mandatory evacuation will come, nor how many evacuations our community will have to endure in the near future. We do not know whether the next storm will be contained in the same creek channels, or cut new channels, or fan out to flood areas where no flooding has gone before.

By far, the biggest unknown, and the one that has to be addressed before any new rebuilding permits are issued, is how we can mitigate the threat of another storm-induced disaster. This question, quite frankly, is hard to answer, both from practical and economic perspectives.

Mitigating the Threat 

Proposed solutions to mitigate our current risk range from additional dredging of wider and deeper creek channels by the Army Corps of Engineers to hydro-mulching in the fire-denuded hillsides, to controlled burns of dead and damaged vegetation, avalanche-style dynamiting or blasting of rock outcroppings, to steel and titanium retention nets or the addition of more and larger man-made debris basins.

Saving Lives, Saving Property

In January, the Carpinteria Coastal View News reported that there was no flooding from Santa Monica or Franklin creeks into Carpinteria, despite the same heavy rain that Montecito received, thanks to the Santa Monica debris basin that lies just north of Foothill Road. The Santa Monica Creek debris basin can be considered the “Crown Jewel” of the Santa Barbara Flood Control District for its successful prevention of flowing mud, tree trunks, utility poles and boulders, tumbling down creeks, blocking bridges.

The massive 208,000-cubic-yards Santa Monica Debris Basin was built as part of a project conceived in the 1970s and early ’80s by the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service. It was constructed after major flooding within the Franklin and Santa Monica watersheds in Carpinteria in 1969.

The Santa Monica Creek catch basin did its job, saving urban Carpinteria from the deadly January 9 debris flow. According to Tom Fayram, Santa Barbara County deputy director of Public Works for Flood Control, “The basin filled to an estimated 50 feet deep with material that would otherwise have rushed to the ocean. The basin did spill, but the overflow was absorbed in the creek bed and the salt marsh, the last line of defense before hitting the City of Carpinteria.”

Debris Basins in Montecito

There are seven small debris basins located above Montecito on the San Ysidro Creek, Montecito Creek, Cold Spring Creek, Romero Creek, and three on Toro Creek. None is as large, or as sophisticated, as the 208,000-cubic-yards Santa Monica Debris Basin in Carpinteria. By way of reference, a single dump-truck load holds roughly 10 cubic yards of mud and debris.

According to the “Final Updated Debris Basin Maintenance and Removal Plan” for Santa Barbara County approved in June 2017, six months before our twin disasters, Montecito’s San Ysidro and Cold Spring debris basins were already scheduled for closure to satisfy those friends of the fish who say the debris basins, built 54-years ago by guess who – the Army Corps of Engineers – are endangering non-existent steelhead trout, which someday may reappear in the ocean and decide to swim up our dry creek channels to spawn, despite the fact that our creeks usually contain no water and definitely no fish.

Rather than close Montecito’s basins, the best solution may be to greatly expand the debris basins north of Montecito as the most cost-efficient way of mitigating future life-threatening debris flows in Montecito. The construction of larger new debris basins in Montecito would need to be endorsed by committed environmentalists to avoid CEQA lawsuits. Federal funding of such a project may be difficult to procure right now. 

Rebuilding in Montecito

County officials will soon be forced to make a critical choice between fast-tracking a rebuilding process in what has now been labeled an “Extreme-Risk” Zone as a way to help distressed homeowners get back into their endangered homes, or refusing to grant re-building permits in “Extreme-Risk” areas. Rebuilding permits will most certainly be denied in creek beds that have now widened from 10 feet to 200 feet or on adjacent creek banks with appropriate setbacks. Will rebuilding be permitted in extreme danger Red Zones near creeks that flow out to alluvial plains such as Montecito Oaks, Tiburon Lane, San Leandro Lane, the Santa Barbara Biltmore, or Bonnymede? Could FEMA refuse to offer flood insurance, and simply ban all rebuild plans in the entire newly remapped FEMA “Extreme-Risk” Red Zone of Montecito? We will not have a clue or a say for at least the next three months.

Where does that leave homeowners living in rentals but who want to regain some control over their lives in the next five years? One option could be to settle their insurance claims by accepting an insurance payout for their home and its contents. If FEMA declares their parcel “unbuildable,” the value of their land would probably go to zero.

No one in government has made any decisions, except to tell homeowners whose homes have been destroyed to move slowly, prolonging homeowner anxiety and lengthening their inability to plan their future. We are all awaiting the re-mapping from FEMA.

The county has no money to take private land through “eminent domain.” An alternative might be the creation of a government charitable land trust where homeowners donate their land to the trust and in return receive a charitable tax deduction for the value of the land. Lawyers call this “inverse condemnation” or “regulatory taking,” in which government takes private property on the basis of a government regulation, such as refusing a rebuilding permit in an “Extreme Risk” zone. Accumulated parcels, owned by the government, could then be converted to public use.

All of which leaves a great number of Montecito homeowners, at least for the short-term, completely up in the air. Unfortunately, County leaders making future decisions are rarely Montecito residents. What’s at stake here is no less than the future fate of Montecito. It is important that actual Montecito stakeholders be part of determining that future.


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