A New and Better Vision
Last month, in response to a public request, Montecito Association (MA) Land Use Committee chair Cori Hayman identified the “Top 10 Issues” facing Montecito. The goal was to focus on making the village better than it was before the twin disasters of the Thomas wildfire and the January 9 debris flow.
The Land Use Committee’s “Top 10” list has been compiled, revised, and presented to MA president Charlene Nagel and the full MA Board this week. The intent is to “look outside the box” and generate solutions that go up, down, and around established bureaucracies and habitual naysayers.
What follows are the Top 10 issues as defined by the MA Land Use Committee. The comments about each issue are my own:
Life and Property Safety
All of Montecito has been officially designated by our government as either in an “Extreme Risk” Red Zone or a “High Risk” Yellow Zone. No serious rebuilding effort can begin until the “Extreme Risks” of unstable hillsides and potential destructive debris flows have been mitigated to the greatest extent possible.
What may be needed is the construction of expanded or additional debris basins above Montecito, similar to the 208,000-cubic-yard Santa Monica Debris Basin, built in 1977 by the federal USDA Soil Conservation Service as part of the Carpinteria Valley Water Project. This debris basin saved Carpinteria in the floods of 1995 and again this year.
Accurate Topographical Mapping
FEMA and the county are working together to create a more accurate “Interim Flood Hazard Recovery Map.” Existing mapping data are worthless for land use permitting decisions because survey markers have been demolished, creek channels have been widened or rerouted, and elevations have been dramatically altered by the recent debris flow.
Preliminary topographical mapping will take at least three months to officially designate where and how high mud and debris can be expected to flow in the future. FEMA will determine whether rebuilding permits will be issued – most certainly not in the new, wider, creek channel basins, nor on adjacent creek banks with appropriate setbacks, and probably not on the vulnerable alluvial fans that carry “Extreme Risk” debris to places such as Olive Mill, Montecito Oaks, Tiburon Lane, San Leandro, Bonnymede, or the Biltmore.
The county continues to defend its absurd distinction between “public mud” (which will be removed at county expense with probable disaster reimbursement) vs. “private mud,” (which must be removed by those residents unlucky enough to own parcels inundated with public mud).
Mud, trees, boulders, and debris that originated on public land in the Los Padres National Forest, mixed with other peoples’ cars, tires, and household belongings, is not “private mud.” A simple compromise might be for the county to agree to remove any mud and debris pushed to curbsides by local residents.
The use of temporary bridges could restore normal traffic patterns along Highway 192, within weeks, not years. Caltrans, restricted to its narrow right-of-way and two-to-four-year bridge re-construction schedule on 192, cannot construct temporary bridges, but the Army Corps of Engineers can wave environmental restrictions and drop in temporary bridges outside the Caltrans right-of-way.
Expect a prolonged and divisive Montecito wrangle over the design of guardrails on the damaged or destroyed six bridges along Highway 192. Here’s hoping Caltrans will provide dozens of semi-rural railing design options and we can find an acceptable choice, or modify one with local funding, and move on.
Reconstruction and Improvement of Roads
Montecito’s meandering roads and country lanes have shaped our community character for the last 100 years. Built for scenic beauty and not for speed of travel, they have taken a horrific beating from heavy equipment and the 50,000 truckloads needed to remove 500,000 cubic yards of mud. With heavy construction traffic expected over the next four years, most local roads cannot simply be surface-coated. They will require restoration and, in some cases, rebuilding.
Delivering a reliable supply of water at an affordable cost, regardless of rainfall or drought.
California has constructed a dysfunctional water system, hideously dependent upon unreliable snowpack in the High Sierras, an exhausted Colorado River system, plus an inadequate and energy-inefficient conveyance system of vulnerable pipelines, dams, canals, reservoirs, and pump stations, which move Northern California water to the southland. Designed to serve 20 million customers, the same inadequate system is now expected to serve 40 million residents, plus a booming agricultural industry, in periods of increasing drought.
The Israelis have built a secure water system based upon a reliable and affordable combination of waterworks that includes desalination, recycled wastewater, harvesting of storm water, groundwater management, and regional cooperation. California politicians and environmentalists have done everything in their power to make desalination unattractive and as expensive as possible.
Thanks to technology, we are close to water independence and permanent freedom from drought. The pieces are coming into place, supported by a more committed Montecito Water District Board and a more flexible Sanitary Board. We are within “snuggling distance” of secure water, if only we can get the 15 water and sanitary agencies on the south-central coast to work together, not just for themselves, but for a secure water future for all.
Montecito is afflicted with a world-class nightmare of overhead visual pollution. The current canopy of telephone lines, power lines, steel and wooden poles, cell phone antennas, and refrigerator-sized control boxes is not only an eyesore but dangerous from the standpoint of fire and frequent power and cable outages.
The first step in an undergrounding effort is to convince Caltrans to remove all Highway 192 (East Valley Road) telephone poles as a life safety and disaster recovery effort. Expensive trenching costs can be mitigated by utilizing the existing commitment by MWD for trenching an already planned 100-year-old water pipe replacement at a cost of $2 million per mile. Caltrans should also apply for a federal grant as part of the Montecito Recovery Plan. Finally, SoCal Edison, Frontier, SoCal Gas, Cox and a host of smaller communication companies should contribute significantly to undergrounding. Edison may suggest a preference for undergrounding in lieu of exposure to potential future legal fees that name them as the cause of Montecito debris flow.
With the widening of the 101, the reconstruction of Highway 192, and the rebuilding of structurally damaged Hot Springs/Olive Mill roads and Sheffield Drive, the undergrounding effort could be extended to at least our main arterials.
Montecito Community Plan
The Montecito Community Plan was crafted a quarter-century ago under entirely different circumstances by community leaders, including Joan Wells, Sally Kinsell, Claire Gottsdanker, Sally Bromfield, Susan Gulbransen, and Dick Thielscher.
We should seek to discover what our community’s current vision is for Montecito, and which new ideas should be incorporated to:
(a) Preserve and protect the semi-rural character of Montecito;
(b) Maintain public and, where feasible, private views;
(c) Respect the privacy of immediate neighbors;
(d) Balance site scale with landscape preservation;
(e) Maintain semi-rural character of the roads and lanes; and
(f) Preserve and protect native vegetation.
There are outside community pressures from developers, FEMA, the county, and from the environmental community, itching to define Montecito as they would like it to be. It is up to the residents of Montecito to step forward now to shape the right vision and ensure its delivery.
Ideas presented without research, progress reports, measurable performance, cost estimates, engineering design, and specific responsibilities are not terribly useful. What’s needed is to reach into Montecito’s deep talent pool to recruit knowledgeable leaders motivated to commit their time and resources to explore alternatives and craft the best solutions to build a better Montecito.
There are other issues that could be added to this Top 10 priorities list. Among these are the availability and future cost of homeowner and/or flood insurance; preservation of locally owned restaurants, shops, and other businesses; traffic issues, such as the widening of the 101 and relief for Coast Village Road.
I hope these Top 10 priorities mark the beginning of a much-needed and critical transparent community discussion.