Is Montecito The Last Perfect Place?
A year and a half after fire, flood, and mud – and after seven years of extreme drought – the “disaster watch” seems to have receded in 2019. Gentle rains have nearly ended – leaving behind a profusion of May flowers and a greater sense of wellbeing for both community residents and visitors. Never has our community looked so green, so lush, and so inviting. What a difference one wet wonderful winter makes!
Since January there have been only three mandatory evacuations in Montecito. Unfortunately, two caught the elegant 5-star Four Season Santa Barbara Biltmore at full-occupancy – a cruel reminder of the fickleness of Mother Nature. The San Ysidro Ranch is creeping back to life. The mountainsides are bathed in new lifesaving growth. Swiss-designed flexible steel nets are in place to hold back and direct whatever else may come down the mountains during another big rain event. Visible images of shattered homes destroyed by the 1/9/18 debris flow and the Thomas Fire are disappearing. Flood victims are slowly rebuilding. Montecito’s mud has been mostly washed away.
Coast Village Road and the Upper Village businesses, while reporting 20 to 33% reductions in business for 2018, are enjoying a mini-resurgence as second-home owners and high-spending tourists, missing in 2018, are returning to this verdant area.
In January, the Montecito Association (MA) conducted an email survey of its membership to ascertain what residents consider their “Top 5 Issues.” With 200 responses from the 1,000 MA members, the results are mixed, but statistically valid. What have we learned? Of the respondents, 76% own the home they are currently living in, while another 16% reported owning a local home but not actually living in it. They may be rebuilding from the 1/9 disaster, or consider Montecito to be their second home or vacation getaway.
Only 6% of responders identified themselves as renters. Previous research of the California real estate marketplace indicated that 24% of Montecito residents claimed rental status, compared to Isla Vista at 98% rental housing, Santa Barbara 59%, Goleta 47%, Summerland 36%, California at 46%, and the entire United States at 36%.
The difference in rental rates between the results of the MA survey and the census estimates may reflect the fact that more homeowners than renters tend to be members of the Montecito Association. Full-time home ownership translates to a greater commitment to community, a desire for long-term improvements, and a devotion to protecting community character and our semi-rural quality of life.
Sixty percent of MA responders reported their age range to be between 55 and 74, while 27% were over 75, meaning 87% of MA responders were senior citizens. According to ZIP code census data, the median age for Montecito residents is only 49.5; 53% of residents are 18 to 64 years old while another 18% are under the age of 18.
The Top 5 Issues
1) Not surprisingly, the number one concern is Safety and Security. By contrast, 18 months ago, after seven years of drought, our number one concern was the lack of water security.
2) Right behind is Infrastructure Replacement and Rebuilding,both public and private. The component parts of this concern are rebuilding destroyed and damaged homes at an affordable cost; restoring roads and bridges that have been battered by heavy truck usage; finding an affordable way to take down 100-year old telephone poles and bury wires underground in an effort to prevent future sparking and power outages; re-building homeowner and home buyer confidence; removing homes from the red flood zone maps; insuring that creek beds are cleared and maintained; building larger and more effective debris basins; and installing ring nets for added protection against future storms.
3) Third is the Preservation and Protection of the Semi-Rural Character of Montecito, our most valuable asset. The character and charm of this community cannot be sacrificed to the destruction of local rural roads, nor affordable housing mandates that threaten to make a mockery of our zoning codes. Other concerns include increased building heights that obliterate existing view plains, growing traffic and parking problems, and loss of local family-owned, shops, restaurants, and businesses.
4) Fourth is the growing threat of Traffic Gridlock not only on Highway 101, but also on Coast Village Road, Coast Village Circle, East Valley Road, and Old Coast Highway. Community connectors, for example, North Jameson Lane, Hot Springs, Olive Mill, San Ysidro and Sheffield Drive, often serve as a third highway lane when traffic backs up on the 101.
5) Last is Water Security and Water Independence.An affordable and reliable local water supply is essential to retaining our semi-rural character and ambience. We would not do well as a community of thirsty “desert rats.”
Other concerns mentioned in the survey included the lack of an elected community voice in decision making; self-governance; finding the best local leadership candidates for appointment or election to Boards; survival of the Montecito business communityfaced with rising costs, e-competition, and traffic gridlock; community cohesiveness; control of short-term rentals; hillside development; safe hiking and biking trails; roundabouts; and emergency preparedness.
Community Profile: Montecito Assets
We are nearly 9,000 neighbors, living within this 9.3 square mile special place we call Montecito in some 4,312 households. We care passionately about this community. We travel extensively. We are well educated: 34% of our population has a Master’s or Doctorate Degree, 72% a Bachelor’s Degree, and 98% have a high-school diploma. We are affluent: our median household income is nearly twice that of Santa Barbara or Santa Maria. We are 55% female, higher than the average in the rest of the state.
We are blessed with a preponderance of retired business leaders, strategic planners, CEOs, and CFOs, plus a deep bench of public and non-profit board members with unique problem-solving and financial skills. We also are cursed with an excess of talented lawyers who annoyingly tell us what we cannot do, which is nearly everything.
County Assistance and Support
Identifying problems is the easy part; the hard part is identifying solutions that are affordable – and then finding unique ways to pay the bills. Abe Powell’s Bucket Brigade and Pat McElroy’s Partnership for Resilient Communities have shown us innovative ways to form public-private partnerships. I am confident that locked within Montecito creative minds are more innovative, outside-the box-ideas, including possible funding plans – bursting to see the light of day. Unleashing them will be the community challenge to be addressed as we search for better answers.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the County of Santa Barbara lacks the financial resources to fully resolve any of Montecito’s major issues. Yes, it will do its best to clean out our creek beds, restore our bridges, and widen the 101, but only as the final phase of a 20-year widening effort, ending 10 years from now. Funding generous pension payments and rising lifetime health benefits for retired employees and their dependents has exhausted county reserves.
While the Montecito community consists of onlyone-quarter of one percent of the total land in the county, it contributes 17% of the county’s property tax base and 62% of the transient occupancy tax to the County’s General Fund. Despite that, however, it has become our responsibility to design and install our own ring nets, to remove our own private mud, to find new ways to produce water at an affordable price, to bury our utility lines underground, to repair our trails system, and to save our local library.
With no mayor, no city council, no local government, no financial reserves, and no authority, Montecito residents are dependent upon volunteer leadership to explore, plan, and fund new ideas to create a community that is safer and more desirable. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any good ideas you may have for making Montecito “The Last Perfect Place on Earth.”