The Need for Leadership
In the four months between December 2017 and March 2018, Montecito was evacuated five times; 23 people lost their lives; 170 homes were destroyed and more than 350 others were severely damaged.
We are currently a community under siege, trapped between a strong desire to rebuild and the uncomfortable realization that we are about to issue rebuilding permits for sites officially designated either as “Extreme Risk” or “High Risk” for loss of life. Worse, the character of this community will be determined largely by outsiders who are not Montecito residents. The absence of local governance leadership and local decision-making power is the proverbial “Black Hole” for Montecito.
What is Montecito?
Montecito (Spanish for “Little Mountain”) is an unincorporated California coastal community, bounded on the north by East Camino Cielo Road and the Los Padres National Forest; on the east by Ortega Ridge Road and Ladera Lane; on the south by the Pacific Ocean; and on the west by the City of Santa Barbara.
“Semi-rural” Montecito is still the loveliest and most affluent community in the county. We are 8,965 fortunate residents living on 5,952 acres (9.3 square miles) in 3,432 households. Twenty-four percent of homes in Montecito have children under the age of 18 living at home. The average household size is 2.34 persons. The median age for residents is 50 years, with 26% of residents 65 years or older. There are 5,572 registered voters in Montecito, split 39% Democrat, 33% Republican, and 28% other.
Are We Losing Control of Our Community?
Unlike its neighbors in Goleta, Santa Barbara, and Carpinteria, Montecito has no home rule or self-government – no elected mayor, no city council. We do have several venues to voice our opinions, but no authority and no funding to implement solutions. With 2% of the county’s population, Montecito accounts for approximately 17% of the county’s tax base, according to county executive Mona Miyasato. “Ninety percent of Santa Barbara County revenue comes from property tax and, of course, Montecito is our Golden Goose,” says North County’s 5th District County supervisor Steve Lavagnino.
Vexation Without Representation
Montecito has no decision-making power in the planned widening of the 101, or the unfortunate closure of the southbound on-ramp at the Cabrillo Blvd/Hot Springs interchange, or local interchange improvements associated with the future widening of the 101 or Highway 192. We are encouraged to offer opinions in an advisory role, but we are not one of the decision-makers. In funding allocations and scheduling decisions on the widening of the 101, or on improvements to Highway 192, the smaller home-rule towns of Guadalupe (7,451 residents), Buellton (5,155), and Solvang (5,769) sit at the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments (SBCAG) table, trading traffic dollars and making deals for road repairs; Montecito, however, sits on the outside looking in.
In 1960, Montecito voters turned down a bond proposal for a sewage treatment plant to replace septic tanks in Montecito. Business owners along Coast Village Road (CVR) turned to the City of Santa Barbara for annexation because the City promised to add a sewer line.
A year later, William H. Joyce, Jr, then-president of the Montecito Sanitary District, contracted for a study with Stanford Research Institute to plan and design a new sewage treatment plant for Montecito. The treatment plant was completed in 1961, funded by $3.1 million in revenue bonds, but control of CVR had already been lost forever. Here was a classic case of too little too late, one of (maybe even the worst) blunders in Montecito history.
The result of City annexation of Montecito’s shopping heart and business soul meant that Montecito has permanently lost its planning and zoning control over the heart of its Main Street shopping district. If the City decides to allow increased density on CVR, or higher building heights, or higher sales taxes, or hotel taxes to boost its tax revenues, that’s it. If the City decides that a new Olive Mill roundabout is needed at “the Gateway to Montecito,” that’s it. If the City decides that a re-opened southbound entrance ramp to the 101 at the Hot Springs/Cabrillo intersection is not needed, that’s it. If the City decides Montecito needs a pot shop or two to generate more city tax revenues, that’s it.
Short-term vacation rental policy is decided by the County. So too are the addition of Accessory Dwelling Units and Affordable Housing, both mandating higher densities. Likewise, the future use of marijuana, including its sale and production policies, will be decided by outsiders.
Future flood preparedness and “Rebuilding of Montecito” permits will be decided not in Montecito, but by federal FEMA mapping administrators, insurance companies, the County Board of Supervisors (BOS), and County staff. Public mud and debris flows from the Los Padres National Forest have been arbitrarily designated by outsiders as either “public mud” to be removed as a flood expense or “private mud” to be removed at homeowner expense.
Montecito traffic flow is a function of decisions made by the City on CVR, Caltrans on the 101 and State Highway 192 East Valley Road, and the County on our local streets.
The Montecito Association (MA)
The mission of MA is the “preservation, protection, and enhancement of the semi-rural residential character of Montecito in the spirit of the Montecito Community Plan.” It has existed for more than 70 years as the self-appointed “Voice of Our Community.” Over the years, strong, unpaid community leaders in MA have worked to defend Montecito on behalf of its Community Plan. Legions of directors have invested time and effort to preserve and protect the unique character of Montecito. Nevertheless, even the best leaders recognize MA’s structural limitations as a lobbying organization and express frustration at its lack of governmental power.
MA is not a jurisdictional governing body; rather, it is a non-profit membership association, with two fatal flaws: 1) It has no money except its dues (it receives no tax funding), and 2) it has no power or authority to implement anything. Unfortunately, the real decision-making power in Montecito lies with our 1st District supervisor, Das Williams, County staff, and the County Board of Supervisors, who call the tunes to which our community must dance.
The MA Board consists of 17 community residents, recruited and selected by their fellow members and ratified by a membership vote. The MA president meets monthly with our 1st District supervisor, who also represents voters in Carpinteria, Summerland, Mission Canyon, and Cuyama, plus the Eastside, Westside, Riviera, San Roque, downtown, and waterfront areas of the City of Santa Barbara. Montecito voters represent a small part of Williams’s constituency.
MA long ago surrendered its Land Use and Zoning decision-making power to an independent Montecito Planning Commission (MPC); a Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR); and the Historic Landmark Advisory Commission (HLAC), all of which can be and frequently are overruled by the county staff and the BOS.
The Need for a Neighborhood Community Huddle
It is past time for Montecito residents to deliberate and determine what the future should be, and what governance model is required.
It is time to gather the facts and intelligently study new models for community governance, including costs and benefits of home rule, or any other system that returns community decision-making power to the people who live here. Without credible research, intelligent decisions cannot be made. The right course is to get the facts and explore options. It is important to do this with the blessing and in concert with the Montecito Association and the Montecito Foundation, in a climate of maximum transparency and mutual cooperation.
Business as usual is not an option. The genius of the late Michael Towbes was his unique ability to see things not as they are, but as how they might be. Through his efforts, he changed not only the face of our greater community, but more importantly he inspired the love of place that lies deep within our hearts and souls. The Granada Theatre, Cottage Hospital, UC Santa Barbara, Montecito Union School, Lotusland, and Santa Barbara City College all benefitted from his generosity and community spirit.
I believe Montecito contains others such as Mr. Towbes with the vision and skills needed to protect, preserve, and improve this special place, people who are more than willing to become integral parts of an effort to ensure that Montecito is rebuilt to the specifications of those of us who live here. I also believe that effort must start immediately.