Community Leaders Speak on the Prospect of a Sustainable Montecito

By Asher Radziner   |   October 19, 2022

Entering the Santa Barbara Club this summer, I met with the newly elected Montecito Association member, Stan Roden – a former Santa Barbara County District Attorney now working as a climate ambassador and filmmaker. Having heard of his interest in guiding the community towards more sustainable and resilient practices, especially amidst the ever-growing environment turmoil, I wanted to meet with him and hear his thoughts on what that entails.

One idea that Roden has been floating around – with the goal of more significant climate adaptation and emissions reduction – is the prospect of amending the Montecito Association charter with language that references community sustainability, adding to its longtime singular focus of preserving Montecito’s semi-rural character. By highlighting Montecito’s goal to be preserved as a ‘sustainable, semi-rural’ village, he believes it would bring climate responsibility to the front-of-mind in all their efforts.

Roden opened our conversation by asking me how it is I’ve come to Montecito. A fair place to start. I’m not from Montecito, and I’ve never spent much time here until this summer when I started working for the Montecito Journal. I grew up in Los Angeles and when I’m not away at university, I still call the city home.

I explained that I came to work for the Montecito Journal because I saw an opportunity to share my voice through a smaller paper in a locale with a deep history of environmental action. When the MJ asked me what I wanted to write about, I could not have been clearer. As a young person planning to one day have a family of my own, and one that is hopefully integrated into a healthy, thriving community, I think a lot about local resilience. Whether through exploring alternative approaches to landscaping or coastal preservation – that’s what I wanted to write about – and what better place to do that than a town credited with the birthplace of the environmental movement.

I started our meeting by asking the question that sparked it in the first place, and really this whole discussion: “What do you think a sustainable Montecito looks like?” A simple enough question, I thought. But my conversation with Stan as well as several other community leaders has proven me wrong.

Roden answered my question by first addressing sustainability on a global scale; how does Montecito’s community contribute to the larger problem? “We’re at 418 [parts per million (ppm) of atmospheric carbon dioxide],” he says. “We’re going to be over 700 by the end of the century.” For context, the atmosphere contained 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution. While our planet has seen carbon dioxide levels this high in its history, it has never seen a rate of increase as fast as we are seeing today. 

“So, whether you’re a skier or you drink wine or beer, whatever it is, you’re facing serious problems. That brings us back to Montecito,” says Roden. “This pristine place with acres and acres of beautiful lawns and all the water it takes to support them, that’s not sustainable.” Using 255 gallons of water per capita per day according to the Montecito Water District, Montecito consumes more water per person than almost anywhere in the country. And while on the surface it appears that even that level is a decrease from prior figures, the numbers don’t tell the full story. 

Solar Cells and a Swell of Wells 

I reached out to Sharon Byrne, Executive Director of the Montecito Association, and asked her the same leading question. Byrne’s answer may well be informed by her having lived through 2018’s disastrous debris flow. 

“There are people that are putting in backup batteries and solar panels,” she says. “They’re almost being driven to it because we live in this world of public safety and power shutoffs.” Byrne has been community organizing in the Santa Barbara area since 2010 and has a history of actively working to cultivate change. Her work on the social revitalization of restaurants along Milpas was awarded in both 2013 and 2014 by Neighborhoods, USA. 

To Byrne, creating resilience in the face of our changing climate is the answer to sustainability. With the blame for multiple recent fires falling in part on Southern California Edison (SCE) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), they have begun shutting down power, often a day or two in advance of a looming fire threat. “People have started thinking, if the grid is unstable, maybe now’s a good time for me to investigate a solar setup,” says Byrne. “Having to deal with resilience problems starts pushing you in more sustainable directions, whether you wanted to go there or not.”

“I believe Montecito is living on about 65% of what it used to in terms of water,” says Byrne. Until March 2022 when California Governor Gavin Newsom issued Executive Order N-7-22, Santa Barbara County did not have to check with smaller water districts before issuing water well permits. For years, this allowed for the drilling of private wells with county approval but without Montecito Water District oversight. “Montecito Water suddenly found a thousand straws dipping into its groundwater basin,” says Byrne. “They couldn’t stop the permitting process.” 

According to the Montecito Water District, as of 2020, most private wells were unmetered, meaning their water uptake is not factored into district water usage calculations. And based on numbers from a 2017 study conducted from 2011 to 2015, private wells could be contributing as much as an additional 50 gallons per capita per day. Montecito water usage, if it has declined at all, has not decreased by much.

Newsom’s recent executive order, in conjunction with the 2018 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), stopped this rampant permitting of private wells. “SGMA basins, meaning basins that are required to do a groundwater sustainability plan like our basin, are not to authorize new wells that would potentially endanger the sustainability plan of the basin,” says County Supervisor Das Williams, over coffee at Renaud’s Patisserie on Coast Village Road. Williams expresses a keen interest in establishing policy that will increase the sustainability of this county and decrease its deleterious contributions to global climate change. He is also the Vice Chair of Central Coast Community Energy (3CE), which services most counties along the Central Coast, of course, including Santa Barbara and Montecito. 

According to Williams, while the majority of businesses and residences on Coast Village are under the city’s energy jurisdiction, most residences in Montecito and the businesses in the Upper Village fall under 3CE’s – what is known as a community choice aggregation (CCA), which means that as opposed to a private utility, elected representatives such as Williams control its joint energy purchase agreements with producers. 

“We have 14 power purchase agreements (PPAs) with facilities, mostly in-state, that will total 60% renewable energy by 2025; 100% by 2030 is the goal,” says Williams. “Most CCAs pretend they’re already doing 100% renewable energy, but nobody’s doing that yet. Our advantage is, unlike SCE and PG&E, we don’t pay our stockholders 10%, because we don’t have stockholders. So, we can spend a lot of money on electrification incentives for cars, buildings, and electric charging.”

Reconsidering Reuse

To Williams, a sustainable Montecito means decreasing usage of both fossil fuels and water. “Water use creates more fossil fuel usage, and we don’t have enough water supplies here,” he says. “What might be different than other people is I don’t think that necessarily means less housing. In Montecito, population has almost nothing to do with water usage, unlike other places.” Williams goes on to tell me that Santa Barbara County has been in a drought three of the past seven years. “The only reason that we were exceeding the amount of water that we had due to the drought is because of the lawn watering,” says Williams.

In Montecito, roughly 80% of water goes towards landscaping, so switching to drought-resistant alternatives and native plants can make a massive dent in one’s water bill, cutting it down to up to nearly a seventh of its original cost. 

Conserving water is the most obvious way to mollify water needs in our growing drought and to lower fossil fuel consumption, but there are other options like desalination and reuse, which are being heavily explored. As of 2020, Montecito has entered into a water purchase agreement with Santa Barbara’s Charles E. Meyer Desalination Plant to supply potable water through 2070. Recycled water isn’t as cut and dry, yet. 

“Countries like Spain and Singapore and Israel have had these solutions for a long time,” says Byrne. “But it’s very new for the consciousness here in America and in California, which is crazy to me. In Orange County, they’re doing a hundred million gallons of recycled water a day.” Byrne explains that the future of water reuse in Montecito comes down to the feud between two opposing viewpoints. “One camp is convinced that the other only wants recycled water so they can water Birnam Wood Golf Course. The other camp has got their heads down and is just trying to figure out how to recycle water.” 

Regardless of its potentially nefarious purposes, recycled water is far from a novel concept.

“If you live in an extremely high-fire community like Montecito, the best thing you could ever do is make yourself a [large] amount of non-potable reuse water and keep your landscaping green,” says Byrne. “Because we have learned from fire after fire that [fire hitting] irrigated land slows down fast. Instead of sending your wastewater offshore, turn around and make that stuff available to be dumped on people’s lawns, trees – keep the place green.” 

Byrne isn’t alone in her support for water reuse. Based on their projections, it appears the Montecito Water District expects local recycled water will become a reality by 2030.

“All of the water on the planet is reused water. Whatever water got here, however it got here, is all there is,” says John Steed, President of the Community Environmental Council (CEC) and a former lawyer, as we spoke outside of Cafe Luxxe at the Montecito Country Mart. “So we’re all drinking, as they say, dinosaur piss. I have no problem with reuse conceptually.” Steed refers, here, to the concept of potable reuse, which differs from the potential for non-potable reuse mentioned above where water is simply treated to a quality fit for landscaping. At the same time, he recognizes the contradiction present in his lively attitude towards the prospect of
water reuse. 

“I’m going to finish this enjoyable conversation, and then I’m going to go across the street and play 18 holes of golf on a course,” says Steed. “It uses treated wastewater, reclaimed water, but it’s a lot of water and that’s a use that some people will find objectionable… I will say in the renovation of the course, they reduced the amount of irrigated acreage by roughly 40%. That’s more sustainable.”

Steed grew up a Mormon just outside Salt Lake City, Utah, and was called to Japan as a missionary when he was only 19. A few years later, he graduated first from college and then with a degree in East Asian Legal Studies from Harvard Law. He practiced for nearly 30 years in both America and Japan, but shifted his priorities in 2007. 

“When I held my first grandson in my hands, I just realized that this is an innocent being coming into the world with no power on his own to affect his environment and the society and habitat that he and his cohort enter,” says Steed. “I had a bit of an epiphany. I realized that it was my responsibility to do whatever I could to ensure that the world he inherited was not diminished because of my actions.”

I ask Steed his thoughts on what a sustainable Montecito might look like. “The answer to that question is nobody knows because we haven’t tried it,” he says. “If you think about the carbon footprint of a typical Montecitan, it’s enormous. It’s orders of magnitude greater than the carbon footprint of let’s just say the average Swiss person, and of course, the average African or South Asian. One question would be, are we willing to pay the true cost of our consumption?”

Everything that is produced in today’s global economy has at least some carbon emissions tied to its creation. Some products like cement or a steak have a much higher carbon footprint than something like linen or a can of black beans. We pay a certain cost for our products and services, yet almost always, that cost does not consider the associated emissions or societal consequences. Paying the true cost of consumption would close that price gap and allow funds to directly go towards remediating the externalities caused by most modern modes of consumption. “We’re grossly stealing, frankly, the capacity from the poor and vulnerable. So my question is, should we be paying for that? What does it cost to take a ton of carbon out of the atmosphere?” says Steed. “If you started charging that, then technologies to reduce that cost would be stimulated, and the incentives to change behavior, to avoid emissions, become more efficient.”

Finding Home(s) Here

Steed also feels strongly that another part of Montecito trying on a truer sense of sustainability includes changes to the housing market. “We need greater density in housing, and we need more housing,” he says. “We need to reduce the commutes of the people that we rely upon to perform essential services in this community.” Steed shares that in speaking with a friend active at the Sansum Clinic and Cottage Hospital, it became clear that they were struggling in recruiting doctors due to the high cost of housing. “If it’s hard for the doctors to find housing, imagine what it’s like for the people that ring up groceries or the people that take care of the maintenance of homes and landscapes.” 

Supervisor Williams explains that starting in the ‘70s and ‘80s new housing and construction were purposely restricted in Montecito; the goal was environmental preservation. However, “the data is that actually we’re killing the environment by doing that,” he says. “55% of our local emissions are from the vehicle. We’re decarbonizing the grid, but we’re not able to decarbonize your car. And in fact, the housing market is making young people live further and further away.” Locales with a paucity of new housing opportunities can also spurn another problem: new development on the fringes of society in previously undeveloped areas that lack adequate infrastructure. Constructing affordable housing can not only provide homes for essential workers like medical personnel and firefighters, but also prevent environmental degradation elsewhere.

Alternatively, Sharon Byrne believes the answer to Montecito’s housing woes lies in protecting the housing that already exists for the use of permanent residents. “I’ve been trying to work on the city and the county to stop allowing every apartment and home in Santa Barbara and Montecito be turned into a vacation rental, because you’re taking supply off the market, which is constricting it and driving the cost up,” says Byrne. “On the one hand this place is cost prohibitive; it got more cost prohibitive because everybody’s renting out.” One solution lies in raising taxes on those who leave their properties vacant and who do not vote in-state. “They [could] make it very expensive for you to continue to have your second home or vacation rental and use that money to fund the affordable housing that we actually need,” she says. “It’s all about zoning and keeping renters and vacation homes to a minimum, so that you benefit the people who actually live or work in the community.” 

At the same time, Byrne, who spends a good deal of her time working to get unhoused individuals off the street, is not so enthusiastic about the actual prospect of affordable housing. “The state is forcing us to build more housing. Affordable housing never gets built because it’s just too expensive,” she says. “We are in a housing constrained community, and it’s our job to house as many of our people as possible. It’s just cuckoo that some of the people that I meet living in cars had a place to live, and they were forced out because the landlord decided to turn it
into an Airbnb.”

According to Williams, the multi-family housing located just south of the Upper Village provides a large boon to the community. Montecito is already low on middle-class housing, and due to the 2018 debris flow and hot housing market, is “in danger of losing any generational continuity in the community.” Furthermore, “it’s something that threatens every brown skin family in the South Coast. In the past we decimated our African American population. Now we’re decimating our Latino population,” says Williams. “For the first time in its history, the west side of Santa Barbara is no longer a majority Latino.” Williams sees the potential for housing construction or conversation surrounding existing job centers in Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Carpinteria. Investing in local housing would contribute towards decreasing the carbon emissions coming from the tailpipes of commuting workers and perhaps help to preserve local communities of color. 

“There can be no sustainability in Montecito if you’re thinking about Montecito as just Montecito,” says Sigrid Wright, CEO of CEC, over the phone as we spoke this past June. “Montecito exists because there are other communities all around it; it cannot exist in a bubble. We have to think of ourselves regionally because we depend on the North County and Ventura for our food, and we depend on Goleta to host our tech companies, for example.” Wright, originally from the Willamette Valley of Oregon, has been with CEC for over 25 years now and has been CEO since 2015. The Community Environmental Council was formed in 1978 in the aftermath of the catastrophic 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill that also sparked the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

“Fifteen or so years ago, we asked ourselves, What’s the most pressing issue of our time? It became very clearly climate change,” says Wright. “A couple of years ago, we went back and asked ourselves the same question. It’s still climate change. Not only that, but we have to double down; we have to do twice as much, twice as fast.” 

For Wright, operating a nonprofit such as CEC comes with responsibility, but also the ability to instigate real change. Since the beginning of 2021, CEC has doubled their staff and launched a $15 million capital campaign to expand their influence in light of the severity of the problem they aim to address. In addition to its own work, CEC prides itself on its ability to incubate and spin off other nonprofits to address the more specific impacts of climate change. Wright herself is co-founder of the Central Coast Climate Justice Network, Santa Barbara Food Action Network, and Central Coast Climate Collaborative, to name a few. “When you think about the for-profit sector, you think about how much duplication there is; it’s designed to be competitive,” says Wright. “The issues that the nonprofit sector is trying to address are highly complicated. Some amount of duplication… actually builds resiliency.”

Wright knows that the time for action is now. “This isn’t aimed at Montecito, but this isn’t the time to create your bunker,” she says. “It’s not the time to figure out how to protect your enclave.” With the now year-round threat of wildfires encroaching, Californians can certainly feel the heat of the moment. 

Byrne, in addition to her contributions in Montecito, works with the United Nations and has noticed a fascinating trend. “The insurance guys are more up on climate change than everybody else,” she says. According to Byrne, the first in Montecito to lose their homeowners insurance will not be those in danger of future debris flows, they are those living in the high-fire zone. “That’s who’s going to be first doing the migrating,” Byrne says. “It’s not even the floods or fires, it’s the finance guys who will just make it impossible for you to stay there.” Of anywhere in the world, however, Byrne has confidence that Montecito can make it through. “I’ve never seen the level of neighborhood mobilization that I’ve seen here in Montecito. I had a homeless project on the east side of Santa Barbara; I never got this kind of turn out. I never got people showing up going, I’m going along the railroad tracks with you.”

To Byrne, throughout Montecito’s transition towards resilience and sustainability, preserving the integrity of Montecito’s historic character is essential. “The charter of the Montecito Association is to pretty much keep it semi-rural,” she says. “Don’t develop it into Venice Beach or Beverly Hills. Night skies are a big thing here, the whole thing is a nature paradise. The environment here is geared towards preservation. That’s why you get all these housing and development fights.”

Roden puts it bluntly: “The Montecito Association exists to preserve property values, full stop. End of story.” And if he’s right, according to Das Williams, the Montecito Association has little to worry about in terms of increasing local development changing the town’s character. “A lot of people in town are very scared that density is going to increase in Montecito, but it’s not,” he says. “Density is actually falling in Montecito.”

Williams tells me it’s a combination of the increase in the second homes Byrne mentioned, and the fact that some homeowners are buying multiple lots, knocking down a few houses, and building a single, much larger home. There are fewer people living in Montecito than there were 10 years ago. In addition to this minor dip in population, Montecito has also recently undergone a shift in attitude. “Before the debris flow, the dominant political value in Montecito was that of the aesthetic,” says Williams. “The debris flow caused people to care, at least equivalently, about safety.”

In the wake of the January 2018 debris flows that claimed the lives of 23 Montecitans, significant work has gone towards expanding debris basins in preparation for future events. “The San Ysidro debris basin is pretty small, like 10,000 cubic meters,” says Williams. “And the Randall Road one, which is now in the same watershed, is about 50,000. That didn’t exist before the debris flow.” And while these expansions in capacity are improvements, they are not catch-all solutions. “Flooding control improvements would not stop a debris flow of the size [we had in 2018],” says Williams. “But it would reduce the amount of rocks and trees; those are what kills people and destroys houses. So even if you don’t stop an event of that size, you reduce the lethality.” These adaptations are a start, but Williams believes there is more work to be done. 

As for Roden’s idea of adding language to the Montecito Association Charter regarding sustainability and resilience, the benefit to such action remains unknown. “Any effort to do that, I applaud,” says Steed. “I think it’s an uphill battle.” 

Byrne doesn’t think it’s necessary. “I think by creating a sustainability committee, we’ve committed to it, right?” she says. “We’ve already had a couple of meetings and started laying out what it is we think we can do. Part of it is to support the efforts of resilience and sustainability that are already underway, not to reinvent the wheel, but to really get behind recycled water and drought-tolerant landscaping.” 

The Montecito Association Sustainability Committee, created at the behest of Roden, was launched four months ago. The hope is that it will allow for a dedicated space to explore sustainable ideas and provide a voice towards their integration into the fabric of daily Montecito life. “And then we could take that even further, say, hey Montecito Board of Architectural Review and Montecito Planning Commission, we’d like to see more of the United Nations sustainable development goals incorporated into your land use goals,” says Byrne.

Local boards of architectural review hold large quantities of power over community development, transit, and housing projects, so shifting their focus can have profound impacts. Leading with a guideline of community sustainability is a good place to start.

Another approach towards building a community dialogue that can lead to action surrounding sustainability is being explored by Wright and the CEC. In the midst of their recent capital fundraising, CEC lost the lease on their former offices. Now, they are working on building a new office space that will double as a community hub on State Street in the Arts District. “A place where we can do all the network building,” says Wright. “It has a community room in it that should be able to seat about 75 people in a meeting. It also can serve as an after-hours event space.” A project such as this, geared towards bringing the community physically together around progressive action, brings me hope. 

It becomes clear from my conversations that this is a town that cares deeply about itself and is willing to put the work in to preserve its quality of life and longevity. My discussions with these community leaders left me more convinced than ever that any action towards climate adaptation – constructing solar panels, purchasing local energy from renewable providers, reducing water usage, creating opportunities for local workers to live locally — all are valiant and worthwhile endeavors. 

On the idea of the Montecito Association’s Charter growing to include sustainability as a key tenet along with protecting Montecito’s semi-rural environment, I vote yes — even though I’m not a member of the board. What’s your vote?  


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