Montecito Planning Commission

By Kelly Mahan Herrick   |   July 26, 2018

At a hearing last week, Montecito Planning Commission (MPC) and Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) held a workshop to review the FEMA Recovery Maps, which were released in June and are the basis for rebuilding following the January 9 debris flow. 

“I think the maps are overly generous to a disaster,” said MBAR member John Watson, who voiced concern that homeowners are required to build two feet above the base flood elevation. “I think that what we are going to see are houses that are needlessly tall and far away from the creek that would never be affected again,” he added. 

Jon Frye, engineering manager with the Flood Control District, answered questions at the workshop. “What we went through, we’ve never been through anything like this before. We’re learning about this from each other, even today, six months out. We welcome suggestions; we’re learning from different perspectives,” he said. Flood Control reps and Planning & Development staff have been meeting with homeowners since the maps were released in mid-June, and have been monitoring the rebuilding efforts on a case-by-case basis. Frye reported that the majority of property owners meeting with Flood Control reps are rebuilding within the County’s like-for-like ordinance. “I’m not seeing anything that is dramatically different than what they lost. They just want to get through the pipeline and start rebuilding what they had,” he said. 

In addition to building higher, homeowners, in some cases, are required to build farther back from nearby creek beds. “The setback ordinance requires that the footprint of a home is fifty feet from the top of the bank,” Frye said, adding that most of the properties in question are not large enough to accommodate that length of setback. “We have some discretion when working with these maps,” he added, noting there are multiple engineers and architects working on every rebuild project. 

Several members of the community have voiced concern over the recovery maps for various reasons; some think the maps will negatively affect their property values because their property is now located in a high-hazard zone, despite not being affected by the January 9 debris flow. Tom Bollay, speaking on behalf of the Montecito Association, which recently formed a subcommittee to analyze the maps, said that he has been gathering real-life instances where the modeling for the FEMA maps does not make sense and should be further refined by FEMA. 

The map assumes that the debris basins are filled and the bridges are blocked, during a 100-year rain event. Bollay referred to a bridge that was modeled as blocked at Mountain Drive on San Ysidro Creek, where water then was dispersed to the sides of the bridge, affecting different neighborhoods. “They’re modeling the bridge as if it’s a dam, even though the bridge doesn’t exist. In our minds, that should be rerun by FEMA as an open channel, because it is an open channel,” he said. 

Frye responded by saying that FEMA is currently looking at these technical issues and running different models. “We’ll be able to discuss those results when FEMA finishes up their work on it.” FEMA has extended its contract with its technical study contractor for another four months to be able to tackle these issues, Frye said. “They are being responsive about solid technical errors on the map.” 

Planning commissioners asked Frye and P&D director Jeff Wilson if these rebuild projects are being looked at cumulatively, to protect neighboring properties that were not directly affected by the mudflow. “How do we make these better projects, and how do we make sure they do fit in the community, and that the new structure that has to be built doesn’t look completely out of place with its neighbors?” asked newly sworn-in commissioner Bob Kupiec. Wilson said the County has an internal review committee at P&D to ensure like-for-like projects are within the ordinance requirements; MBAR chair John Watson is also consulting on the projects. 

Commissioner Susan Keller asked about the legal ramifications of property owners building walls and berms to protect their homes. “When an applicant comes in, there is a team of architects and engineers looking at the plans, and those items are being discussed,” Frye said. “I think if we can clearly show that what they are proposing to do is going to adversely affect their [neighbors’] property, we’re going to fight it.” 

For more about the rebuild process, visit There is a tab at the top of the page titled Rebuild & Repair, where there is a plethora of information. 


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