Archive » May 18, 2006
By Guillaume Doane
MAXWELL KEEPS HALF OF SUMMIT ROAD PROPERTY
Developer Jack Maxwell has placed his Summit Road home on the market, but he’s only selling less than half of the land on his property, according to real estate files obtained by the Journal. Maxwell, who for two years has been involved in a tense dispute with neighbors over development of that property, is selling his five-bedroom home on .8 acres for $3.95 million, but he’s keeping the remaining one acre of undeveloped space.
In February, the County Board of Supervisors turned down an appeal made by Maxwell to split his property into three developable parcels, despite implied threats made by the developer and Richard Monk, his land use lawyer, that he would sue the County if he didn’t receive approval.
That Maxwell is only selling a fragment of his land indicates the specter of a lawsuit may still be at play. The supervisors’ official vote was processed on March 21, giving Maxwell 90 days, or until late June, to submit litigation papers.
“Which part of no doesn’t Jack understand? His community has spoken with a loud in unison voice on this issue and we will continue to remain firm,” said J’Amy Brown, a member of the High Road Neighborhood Watch, a cadre of residents opposed to Maxwell’s proposal. “The property Jack bought on Summit and High Roads is zoned for one house per two acres and that’s it – that’s the law – no matter how Jack wants to slice it.”
Attempts by Journal staffers to contact Maxwell were unsuccessful.
Montecito Planning Commissioners and local preservationists have considered the Maxwell case one of the most pivotal planning arguments in recent memory. This is primarily because it directly challenges the validity of the Montecito Community Plan, a guidebook for planning decision makers.
Maxwell critics worry that a victory for the developer could trigger a change in development trends, allowing for more high-density housing in historically slow-growth neighborhoods.
The piecemeal sale of his property could complicate a situation with Maxwell’s neighbors that has been anything but easy. In his immediate neighborhood, Maxwell has been perceived as greedy and unnecessarily aggressive, and residents have staunchly opposed his bid for additional building fearful he’d be exploiting the area for economic gain.
Some have speculated that in developing three parcels, Maxwell could make as much as $12 million, a financial windfall of nearly $10 million more than what he paid originally for the house in 2002.
Maxwell’s neighbors say he could be making a mistake by selling his home, especially when they claim they supported him building one larger one on the expanse of his entire property.
“My feeling is that we don’t think he’s going to be able to sell,” said Paul Lucey, a Hill Road resident and zealous Maxwell opponent. “On that point alone, I think it would be a real stretch to pay $3.95 million for eight-tenths of an acre. It’s lunacy, I think. But it’s his business; may he knows what he’s doing.”
All Saints Proposal Requires Public Review, Says Association
The Montecito Association Land Use Committee on May 2 voted unanimously to write a letter to County Planning & Development urging its deputy director, Steve Chase, to ensure that a development application filed by All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church gets forwarded to the Montecito Planning Commission.
“This is a very controversial subject; I think it has enormous impact on Montecito,” said land use member J’Amy Brown.
The church wants to build a meditation garden and 8-foot tall columbarium, a wall that hold 641 niches filled with human cremated remains. The proposal has attracted outrage and criticism from neighbors of the church who say they’re uncomfortable with the idea of living near the equivalent of a cemetery.
“I wouldn’t have bought my house knowing that there would be an above-ground cemetery; I just wouldn’t have,” said Harry Rabin, a Humphrey Road resident. “I don’t really understand the motive here when the church’s responsibility is to serve the community. The way this thing has been conducted…there’s been a lot of deception.”
Chase said the church’s application was incomplete and that it would take him two weeks for his department to determine its decision. He said there were many ways to interpret the application but assured neighbors and Land Use members that the Montecito Planning Commission would hear the issue.
“If you’re opposed to this project, you’re not going to want bureaucracy to decide this; you’re going to want the Montecito Planning Commission,” Chase said. “For the applicant, believe it or not, it can be the same way.”
While County planners deliberate over the matter, Chase encouraged church officials and neighbors to find compromise, observing that even discussion can help in the long run.
“For the most part, I’ve found in my career that there’s a middle ground,” he told members of both sides. “Go out and find that middle ground is my advice to you.”
All Saints’s project planner Suzanne Elledge objected to the Association’s decision, saying it was too early to weigh in, given that the application has yet to be processed.
“This discourages people from coming to you early,” Elledge told Land Use members.
But Brown, who drafted the motion, said it was vital for the Association to get involved immediately, rather than risk the issue not seeing the light of a hearing room. She pointed to the Four Seasons Biltmore spa proceedings last year when opponents had to fight aggressively to be heard publicly.
The Land Use Committee’s May 2 meeting gave neighbors and church representatives the first platform to air out their opinions. Chase said the conflict over the columbarium is the first he’s seen in more than 20 years working with the County.
How Chase decides is crucial in how much momentum one side is given leading up to planning hearings, which planners said could be as soon as September. The County can interpret the application in several ways. It could say the project is a revision to the church’s conditional use permit and requires a full hearing by the Montecito Planning Commission. Planners could also say the columbarium is merely an amendment to the conditional use permit, in which case Chase has discretion to sign off without public review.
The proposal may even require its own development plan, a costlier and more time-consuming alternative for the County and the applicant.
The fate of the once reputable Miramar Hotel hinges on the approval, and price tag, of other Ty Warner ventures. With escalating costs on half a dozen renovations in this county, Warner officials remain in limbo about rehabilitating “The Blue Lady,” which the Beanie Babies mogul purchased for $42 million in early 2005.
The construction projects at stake include the overhaul of Montecito Country Club, Sandpiper and Rancho Marcos, and the restoration of the Coral Casino, which is still enmeshed in a legal battle.
“We’re waiting it out. We’re just looking at everything and wondering how we’re going to do this,” said Greg Rice, vice president of acquisitions for Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts, LLC. “If you have trouble getting approval for a small project, what is it going to be like for a larger project?”
McClain Denies Median
Montecito Fire Chief Ron McClain turned down an application made by Ty Warner Hotels and Resorts for a six-foot-wide median on Channel Drive that had raised waves of discontent among nearby residents.
“Our policy has been to not approve traffic-calming devices on major response routes,” McClain said. “I didn’t feel good enough that we could change that policy.”
McClain did approve a modified version of traffic bulb-outs, reducing their size from seven feet to five feet. He said smaller bulb-outs would give his department “more room to work with” in case of an emergency.
Warner representatives appealed McClain’s denial to the Montecito Fire Board for a May 15 meeting, results of which were unavailable as the Journal was going to press. The Warner team, in addition to a constituency of supporters in the neighborhood, contend the traffic implementations would make the street safer by slowing down drivers and would augment the area’s aesthetic appeal.
County’s Weekend Contact
Supervisor Salud Carbajal’s First District office has been struggling with complaints from residents about contractors and construction companies not following daily work hour regulations. Carbajal’s deputy, Jeremy Tittle, said his office encourages more involvement from the public in identifying violations.
County regulations forbid weekend construction, Tittle said. Complaints about weekend construction should be made to Nick Katsenis, County supervising building inspector, at 568-3040.
Ordinance Gives County Director More Power
The Montecito Planning Commission at its monthly hearing in April approved, by a vote of 5-0, an ordinance that would grant Planning & Development deputy director Steve Chase authority to sign off on or deny certain applications made to the County. In matters dealing with approval of public works projects and other minor conformity determinations the deputy director would act as the planning agency, with little or no input from a hearing body.
Planning Commission chair Bob Meghreblian said he had the “fullest confidence” that County staff would decide appropriately on each issue.
County planners assert that the new system would speed up and clean up the bureaucratic process by putting certain projects on a fast track for approval. Last year, planning staff lobbed the idea at the Board of Supervisors, County Planning Commission and Montecito Planning Commission. A subsequent County survey showed that other local county and city agencies handled these types of applications “either at staff level, or with minimal reporting to a hearing body,” according to an April 19 report to the MPC.
Going back to 2001, County staff counted 57 such projects, 48 of which were reviewed by the County Planning Commission and one by the Montecito Planning Commission, which was formed in 2003. Eight projects were considered by County staff.
Under the new ordinance, 25 projects would be reviewed by a planning commission, 12 would be considered by the deputy director and 20 wouldn’t require a report at all.
Past projects that would gain faster approval are mostly routine, such as a shade structure at Manning Park or vacation of a portion of Miramar Avenue.
To some, the change in policy is seen as questionable, considering that the Montecito Planning Commission is notorious for having short agendas. The January hearing, for instance, was cancelled due to a shortage of hearing items.
Susan Keller, chair of the Montecito Association Land Use Committee, complained that the new policy would eliminate public involvement on issues that were “problematic to the community,” such as the Ortega Reservoir two years ago that had a slew of environmental impacts.
Though he approved the ordinance, Commissioner Michael Phillips had similar objections. “Everyone wants to streamline government, but I don’t see why I would be comfortable without public input,” Phillips said. “It sounds like government moving into the back room a little bit.”
Other commissioners, though, said if other planning agencies are running this way, Santa Barbara County should follow. “As County policy, I think this makes a lot of sense,” said Commissioner Bob Bierig. “I seriously doubt that this will be problematic.”
NEIGHBOR’S $2.7 DONATION COULD RESCUE LAND SWAP
The 40-year marriage between two of Montecito’s foremost institutions received a belated wedding gift that could ensure their partnership becomes permanent.
Last week, representatives from Montecito Union and its across-the-street neighbor YMCA announced that a Montecito resident had pledged to give $2.7 million to secure a three-acre land swap between both parties.
“I’m really looking forward to get together in this long-term partnership,” said Sal Cisneros, chief executive officer of Channel Islands YMCA. “It’s a partnership that will only be strengthened in the future.”
The neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed to help pay a major portion of the $4.4 million San Ysidro Road property adjoining the school’s southern border, with some conditions. There would be a six-year development moratorium and the school would have to restrict outdoor noise and lighting.
“In other words, we wouldn’t be putting Shea Stadium out there,” said Montecito Union Superintendent Dick Douglas.
On May 16, the Montecito Union School Board approved the restrictions on the property, half of which is developable. Board members said they’d soon schedule a hearing when they can finalize the contract.
The terms of the agreement state that the YMCA would take ownership of its three-acre Santa Rosa Lane property that it has been leasing from the school at a heavily discounted rate for 40 years. The school would get control of the southern property, an arrangement MUS officials have hailed as beneficial because the land adjoins the school. The deal is also effective, they say, because the San Ysidro Road property is ripe for development, unlike the YMCA land that is bisected by Oak Creek.
“I do believe this is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Douglas said. “If we don’t act on this now, we’ll never have the ability to do it again.”
If the contract is approved, applications would be made to the County for lot line adjustments. Douglas said it would take six months or more before both parties retain ownership of their respective properties.
Striking a deal was important, participants say, to further a partnership between the two institutions that began 40 years ago when the YMCA moved from its cramped space at the corner of San Ysidro and East Valley Roads.
At its new 14,000-square-foot digs with a swimming pool, hot tub and outdoor basketball courts, the YMCA built a harmonious and reciprocal relationship with its landlord.
An estimated 70% of Montecito Union students use YMCA facilities after class every day. The school teaches swimming classes at the club for physical education and the YMCA uses Montecito Union’s baseball field.
If all the appropriate members bless the contract, the deal could cap the end of a long and grueling fundraising campaign that at its onset glimmered with promise, but over time was beset by shadows of uncertainty.
Five years ago, school officials, YMCA executives and supporters of both parties launched a campaign to raise $4.4 million to save the YMCA, whose 50-year lease with the school was terminating in 2015. In the mid-1960s, high profile residents such as then YMCA director Larry Crandell and developer Michael Towbes, who served on the school board, agreed to set YMCA’s rent at $100 per year. New laws would require Montecito Union to charge market rate, costs that club officials claimed would be too prohibitive to stay.
When it was learned in 2002 that the southern property was for sale, Brian Kelly, a Montecito resident and prominent philanthropist, and his wife, Tricia, purchased the land and agreed to hold it at its price until January 2007 or when a swap could be executed. “I can’t say enough about Brian and Tricia,” Douglas said. “In the space of a day, they knew what this meant to the community.”
With Montecito residents Ralph and Melissa Iannelli, the Kellys formed a committee dedicated to raise funds. The effort underwent spurts and starts, and despite unwavering support from all parties involved, only $1.7 million had been raised as of a month ago.
Douglas attributed the difficulties in raising funds to a “lack of urgency,” since the lease agreement expires in 2015 and that “giving to a land swap isn’t as appealing as giving to the building of a hospital.”
He added: “If we had said this is for building a middle school, we would have had the money tomorrow.”
Montecito Union representatives said they hadn’t decided how they would use the new property, though there have been discussions of anything from an organic garden to something as substantial as a science lab or performing arts center.
School board member Sunny Crandell said it was vital to keep the terms of the contract open-ended. “We haven’t seen the final language, but I’d like to scrutinize it for flexibility,” Crandell said.
To which board member Jim Cody responded, “we’ll have some flexibility, but we definitely want to act in good faith.”
Either way, members of every party say they’re pleased with the outcome. “This is the ultimate win-win situation,” said Ralph Iannelli, whose three kids all went to Montecito Union. “Once the opportunity was made apparent, we knew it had to become a reality.”
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