Seeking Perpetual Excellence

By Bob Hazard   |   June 20, 2019

As we wave the flags and cheer for our kids at our annual 4th of July parade celebrating America’s call for independence, we cannot ignore the reality that we are governed by a county that is totally devoid of local long-range strategic planning for Montecito, including coordination of disparate community efforts.

Under the present system of governance, the county craves our property, sales, and hotel occupancy taxes. The Montecito community (8,965 residents) consists of only one-quarter of 1% of the Santa Barbara County’s property tax base, yet contributes 17% of the county’s property tax revenues. It also generates 62% of the County’s Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT) paid to the General Fund. Appropriately, our revenues subsidize the less advantaged sections of the county.

What is less appropriate is that there is no current coordinated effort at either the county nor within the Montecito community to realistically work together to define priorities important to Montecito, nor to implement strategic planning disciplines to create a better future for Montecito. Instead of working together, Montecito has outsourced its strategic planning future to a functionally bankrupt county government, strangled by its unsustainable lifetime pension and healthcare benefits.

Case in point:

Debris Flow Prevention

The #1 priority in Montecito, as identified by the Montecito Association (MA), is the safety and security of this community. Last week at the monthly MA meeting, Pat McElroy and Joe Cole presented a status update on the all-volunteer community effort to install ring nets in the canyons of Montecito. The GeoBrugg debris control nets are intended to double the protective capacity of the existing undersized Montecito debris basins, and hopefully prevent a repeat of the 1/9 tragedy.

Out of the 11 approved nets, only four ring nets have been installed – one each on the east and west forks of the Cold Spring Creek Canyon that flow into Montecito Creek. That creek cuts through Riven Rock, flows under the destroyed bridge at East Valley Road and Parra Grande Lane, past Casa Dorinda, down Olive Mill Road to Montecito Oaks, and beyond to the Four Seasons Biltmore and the Coral Casino, before dumping its contents into the Pacific Ocean. 

A third ring net has been installed about a mile above the San Ysidro Ranch in the San Ysidro Creek Canyon. A fourth ring net has been installed in the Buena Vista Creek Canyon. Two additional nets have been constructed and delivered but cannot be installed due to a lack of adequate funding. Private community donations of $4.2 million have fallen some $900,000 short of the $5.1 million needed to complete the installation of the first six nets. There is little chance that the funding shortfall can be augmented before the start of the next rainy season.

Net Permitting Restrictions

Back in December, the all-volunteer Partnership for Resilient Communities was granted one-year, fast-track emergency permits from the county for 11 ring nets on Cold Spring, San Ysidro, and Buena Vista creeks. As a condition of approval, the permits include a requirement for a $1 million bond to cover monthly maintenance, removal of debris and removal of the nets themselves within one year.

Under one-year permitting, the tragedy is that when the nets come down at the end of one year, the boulders and the debris flow threat remains. A 3-year or 5-year permitting exception is under request. What is missing is a 5-year coordinated strategic plan between the community and the county that addresses both ring nets and debris basins.

The challenge for the county and this community is to find the ideal mix of flood mitigation measures to favorably impact new flood risk maps. The goal is to remove the maximum number of homes from the dreaded red zone. The strategic plan needs to be driven by what is best for Montecito, rather than by different financial constraints on both the County and the Partnership for Resilient Communities. Both entities are currently working in separate planning and financial silos; debris basin and ring net decisions need to be coordinated.

Montecito Needs Protection

As far back as the 1960, the Army Corp of Engineers told the county repeatedly that there were too few catchments and that the ones in Montecito were far too small to stop enormous debris flows that the Santa Ynez Mountains were prone to produce. In January 1969, El Niño flooding sent boulders crashing through Montecito homes along Romero and San Ysidro Creek, destroying 70 residences. County Supervisor George Clyde and the manager of the flood control district at the time, Jim Stubchaer, lobbied Congress for additional debris basin funding.

An oil spill off the Santa Barbara coast just weeks after the flooding changed the political climate, triggering opposition not just to more offshore drilling, but to any project viewed as threatening the “natural” environment. Plans for larger debris basins suddenly faced strong push-back. With little political will to pressure the Army Corps to build more basins, the main creeks threatening Montecito receded back into their oaken tranquility.

Sadly, six months before the 1/9 tragedy, the County of Santa Barbara issued a debris basin report recommending the closure of two of its six Montecito debris basins to meet environmental demands to restore non-existent fish in traditionally dry creeks.

The Santa Monica Debris Basin

Heeding federal flood warnings in both 1963 and 1969, Carpinteria lobbied for federal funding from the USDA Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) to complete the massive Santa Monica basin (known as the “Crown Jewel” catch basin of Santa Barbara County) with its 208,000 cubic yards of debris flow protection. 

The value of the Santa Monica Basin and sound watershed planning was summarized by Tom Fayram, Deputy Public Works Director, County of Santa Barbara, when he noted, “While other watersheds saw tragic damage and loss of life, the Santa Monica facility carried the day. In past events, the City of Carpinteria was ravaged by the Santa Monica watershed but in January 2018, the City of Carpinteria was mostly unaffected.” 

With regard to the 1/9/18 tragedy, it is difficult to find fault with current Santa Barbara County flood officials. With no budget for creek maintenance, Tom Fayram, foresaw the need to clear the creeks and hastily recruited the Army Corps of Engineers to clean and clear local debris basins in the weeks between the Thomas Fire and the 1/9 flood disaster. The unprecedented storm ran out the clock, but damage would have been far worse without Fayram’s bold intervention.

The 2018-19 Rain Season

Montecito successfully survived six months of heavy rain. Seventeen storms deposited 32 inches of rain on our mountainside, resulting in only three mandatory evacuations. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Montecito homeowners have developed a feeling of overconfidence. New green growth, both within the community and on the fire-scarred mountain slopes overhanging our vulnerable village, has theoretically reduced the burn scar from the Thomas Fire and lessened the risk of future flows of rocks, mud, trees and boulders.

Unfortunately, that same complacency is not shared by our insurance carriers. Reputedly, AIG, All State, Chubb and all the other insurance carriers are re-examining their appetite for issuing new policies in Montecito. One reason is the state regulators’ decision to force insurers to cover flood damage related to the Thomas Fire. Normally, such flood damage is excluded from homeowner policies, and there is some question of whether future claims, should they arise, would carry that same mandatory linkage to the Thomas Fire of 2017.

A Look Into the Future

The primary conduit for addressing community needs has been the Montecito Association, which has become much more active in educating the community on ring nets, insurance difficulties, and home values under the direction of Megan Orloff, President, and Sharon Byrne, Executive Director.

The challenge now is to meet with county executives to see if there is a way to restructure the decision-making process in Montecito, perhaps through a new Community Service District model, to give Montecito leadership greater community planning control to play a more active role in structuring its future, including realistic joint-funding arrangements. This is a subject that will be addressed further next week.


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