Has the County Lost Its Mind?

By Sharon Byrne   |   July 5, 2022
On June 22, notices of “unpermitted encroachments” popped up around the neighborhood (photo by Joe Cole)

We work a lot with the county, from sheriffs to Public Works to Flood Control to Zoning. Normally, the relationship is pretty good. The county is usually responsive, and our community benefits from working closely with our government. 

But our county is doing something we don’t understand at all. Apparently, neither do the judges.

You’ve read a lot in these pages about the situation on East Mountain Drive at the Hot Springs trailhead. For years, locals hiked that trail and parking was small, but manageable. That changed in 2020 – the trail became overrun with out-of-town traffic, people desperate to escape pandemic lockdowns and get some fresh air and nature. Hot Springs images exploded all over social media, magazines wrote articles on this wonderful escape in nature, and now we have crowds of tourists arriving, expecting Disneyland-esque facilities for their day trips. They don’t find those, so they leave their cars all over the street, turning them into one-way roads, effectively.

The trail is in a rural, mountain neighborhood perpetually in high fire danger, with narrow, twisty roads. Crowding people up in that area is a seriously bad idea due to high fire risk. Too many California news stories are of people perishing in mountain towns that couldn’t get out of the path of a raging wildfire. Day-trippers from largely paved urban areas are wholly unaware of this danger. 

With climate change, all sorts of realizations hit. Insurers already knew the dangers of high wildfire, so they’ve dropped Montecitans and other mountainous community dwellers across the state. Homeowners report 10x premium spikes, less coverage, and high deductibles, if they can get a policy. Our California Insurance Commissioner is trying to force insurance companies to offer policies in very high wildfire severity zones. 

Montecito Water is calling for conservation and letting outdoor landscaping go. The Colorado River is at dangerously low levels. Cambria is about to run out of groundwater. 

Things are getting hotter and drier.

The people who know this reality all too well, Montecito Fire, clear tons of brush from our community every year, and run a chipping program. They’re hosting a huge public safety meeting about fire at Westmont on July 7. You should go. We should all go. 

One of the notices dispersed around Mountain Drive by the county

Our Congressman Salud Carbajal’s team had a meeting with all the agencies concerned about trail overcrowding and fire danger just this past Monday. U.S. Forests, where the trail is, are always open to the public. However, the U.S. Forest Service passed restrictions early this year that ban all fires in the front country for two years. The Monday meeting was to discuss trail usage, permit issues at the trailhead, best practices for managing the issue, and signage. Here’s who was there: 

Daryl Hodges, SB District Ranger
Michael Wolfe, Lieutenant, California Highway Patrol – Santa Barbara Area
Ashlee Mayfield, Montecito Trail Association
Lt. Butch Arnoldi, Sheriff
Commander Welch, Sheriff
Jeff Bozarth, Supervising Ranger, County Parks
Chief Kevin Taylor, Montecito Fire
Aaron Briner, Fire Marshall, Montecito Fire
Bruce Reitherman, Land Trust of Santa Barbara
Alison Petro, Land Trust of Santa Barbara
Margaret Arvey, Montecito Creek Water Company
Pat McElroy, Partnership Santa Barbara
Joe Cole, Neighbor Representative
Darcel Elliott, First District Supervisor, Das Williams
Wendy Motta, Senior District Representative, Congressman Carbajal

Against this backdrop of fire danger and multi-agency collaboration, the county’s Big Idea is to pave a massive 62-space parking area for the day-trippers. They’ll accomplish this by forcing homeowners to remove anything in the county’s right-of-way, at the end of their property. 

That earned them a lawsuit from some of the affected homeowners, and a preliminary injunction to STOP threatening homeowners from Judge Geck on May 6. 

On June 22, for reasons known only to themselves, the county decided to threaten residents again with these notices, posted ominously on stakes:

This past Tuesday morning, the parties again met in court, and here’s the response from Judge Anderle

The Preliminary Injunction prohibits the very conduct Respondents admit the Letters seek to accomplish; the Letters, with their explicit threat of fines and criminal prosecution, are clearly intended to scare homeowners into removing the improvements before a decision on the merits can be made.

The Letters undisputedly violate both the letter and spirit of the Preliminary Injunction. By June 29, 2022, County is ordered to notify homeowners who received the Letters that it is withdrawing the Letters and that they do not have to comply with the Letters’ directive. 

Who is the constituency that the county is terrorizing Montecito residents for? Someone might need to remind the county that their first priority is to their Citizens – not to day-tripping Tourists.  

Sharon Byrne is the Executive Director of the Montecito Association


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