Hot Springs Issues Flare
Last week, nearly a dozen homes on East Mountain Drive were given notice by the County of Santa Barbara to remove encroachments in the public right-of-way within a 10-day period, refueling an ongoing battle between homeowners, the County of Santa Barbara Public Works Department, and users of the Hot Springs Trail. On Tuesday, Santa Barbara Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle ruled that the County violated a preliminary injunction by placing the notices, and ordered the County to immediately notify homeowners of the withdraw of the letters.
Back in April, we reported on the ongoing issues in the area, which ended up in litigation between four neighbors and the County of Santa Barbara. In May, Judge Donna Geck with the Santa Barbara Superior Court issued a temporary injunction against the County, preventing them from moving forward with a plan to add up to 62 parking spots in the public right-of-way near the trailhead, citing the need for more environmental review of the potential project. The hot springs – now filled with water after a lawsuit was settled between Montecito Creek Water Company and the Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2019 – became increasingly popular during the pandemic, fueled in part by increased exposure on several social media sites.
There are roughly eight to 10 parking spaces at the trailhead, and in pre-pandemic times, it would not be unusual to see 10 to 12 additional cars parked illegally along Riven Rock Road; the problem has increased exponentially over the last two years. Riven Rock Road was white striped on either side of the road in April 2021, in an effort to thwart parking and maintain resident emergency evacuation routes. Many neighbors report that hikers are still parking in the area, some near the creek bank, despite hundreds of tickets being issued and cars being towed. The County has been attempting to hire a ranger for the area for some time now, and last weekend hikers reported seeing a security guard enforcing the dawn to dusk trail access rules.
County reps told us the new letters issued last week were in response to the pending litigation. Public Works Director Scott McGolpin, who signed each of the dozen letters, says the County must assert all claims it has related to its right-of-way in that area or risk forfeiting certain rights. “To that end, the County provided notice of the unpermitted encroachments and a 10-day opportunity to cure the properties for which it had received complaints and that had unpermitted encroachments,” he said in a statement to the MJ. “Prior to the litigation, the County received multiple complaints regarding obstructions in the public right-of-way on East Mountain Drive,” he added. The County has said the project to increase parking in the area is a “right-of-way restoration project,” which involves limited removal of road encroachments and minor road grading for the purpose of improving sight distance and to allow parking in the public space adjacent to the trailhead.
This past Monday, prior to Judge Anderle’s ruling, 15 community and government reps met behind closed doors to discuss the issues at the trailhead. Although members of the media and public were not privy to the meeting, we’re told that the conversation centered on best use and management practices at the trailhead, and how best to communicate with locals and tourists about the best times to visit the trail, good practices, the history of the hot springs, and more. It was noted that many users of the hot springs and trail are local people and families, who do not leave trash, do not start fires, and park respectfully, according to frequent trail users. There are out-of-town users as well, and the group is determining how best to foster a “leave no trace” mentality for all who visit.
The takeaway from the meeting was that more data is necessary to move forward with any parking project, as well as to determine the best way to move forward with signage for the public. The Forest Service is in the process of conducting a usage study with Kansas State University utilizing cell phone activity to determine usage patterns and volume on the trail. Montecito Trails Foundation board president Ashlee Mayfield tells us that trail usage has decreased significantly from its peak during the pandemic. Montecito Trails Foundation has had volunteers on the trails five days a week, monitoring for fires, collecting trash, and engaging with trail users.
“I’m pro fire safety and pro hiker, and we are trying to find a balance,” Mayfield told us, adding that in her opinion, homeowners along Mountain Drive should remove the boulders, mailboxes, walls, and plantings that are blocking the right-of-way. “They can’t complain that there is unsafe parking and roadways and then also block public right-of-way, where parking spaces should be. Neighbors who are doing the right thing by ‘allowing’ the parking in front of their homes are being disproportionately burdened,” she said. “Everyone in Montecito should be paying attention to this. With these parking spots being blocked, hikers and cars are going to spill over to the Cold Spring and San Ysidro trailheads, and those neighborhoods.”
Mayfield says she hopes that hikers and nearby residents can co-exist for the “new normal” of trail usage. “Let’s create parking, let’s steward the users, and enjoy this special public resource. I hope we can find the middle ground,” she said.
The aforementioned litigation remains ongoing while it is determined if adding more parking – albeit in the public right-of-way – necessitates environmental review.