NEIGHBORS CRY FOUL OVER SYCAMORE CANYON CLOSURE

In front of a three-person panel of Caltrans representatives, an assembly of 100 Montecito and Santa Barbara residents last week made impassioned pleas to reopen a segment of Sycamore Canyon Road that has been closed to motorists for nearly a year and a half. Residents said the winding, tree-flanked road serves as a helpful escape route in the event of a summer fire.

“Fire season is now, fix that thing now,” said Mike Wilson, a nearby resident. “A temporary solution is OK. Have something in place immediately.”

The comments by more than 20 speakers were aired at El Montecito Church during a June 29 town hall meeting sponsored by the Montecito Association and Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), who arrived an hour late and had little participation. The two-hour talks involved officials from six agencies – from the Montecito Fire District to the County First District office – and were meant to provide answers to the public about the closure and imminent repair.

Caltrans first closed the road in January of last year during a two-week stint of heavy rains that provoked a massive hillslide, smothering a 100-yard portion of pavement. Saying problems with the roughly 40-foot eastside hill originated in 1998, Caltrans crews closed the segment of roadway and immediately performed remediation work. They later found a “fairly deep-seated slide” in the hill, determined the area was too dangerous for vehicles, and estimated repairs would involve one to two years of work.

“There is no simple solution to this problem. The repairs are going to require a massive amount of work,” said Janet Wong, a Caltrans lawyer who fielded the majority of questions and criticisms.

Wong said the State would contract a private construction company to complete repairs. But because the matter is wrapped up in an almost finalized lawsuit settlement between a private individual and the State, Wong said she was unable to say what company would do the work and how much it would cost.

Wong added that residents should feel relieved because “private industry can move a lot faster than government.”

But neighbors were dissatisfied with the limited information they were receiving and they grew more irritable as the proceedings went on. Chris Kroes, an attorney hired by Ranchito Vista Road residents Gerrie Shapiro and Stuart Miller to acquire answers, sternly criticized Caltrans as uncooperative in its release of information and evasive in its responses.

“The message that this sends to me is that the only way the public can obtain answers is through a lawsuit,” Kroes said.

Some speakers charged that Caltrans’s initial remediation work only further damaged the hillside. Others said the long period of closure endangers their welfare. “This has dropped our property values,” said neighbor David Jacobs. “I don’t think it’s fair that we’re being shafted.”

Residents stood united on the notion of reopening the road. Some suggested the opening be during fire season and others offered leaving one lane open. But neighbors failed to get the backing of local emergency officials, who said motorists should adapt to the current reroutes.

In the event of a summer blaze, motorists stuck east of the closure have two evacuation options: to go east on Sycamore Canyon toward Cold Spring School or west on Stanwood Road, a hilly tree-shaded patch of terrain that heads into Santa Barbara.

Though he sympathized with neighbors’ worries, Montecito Fire Chief Ron McClain said a temporary reopening was unlikely and he encouraged the public to make appropriate precautions.

“The worst thing I can think of is that when a fire occurs people will be trapped and won’t be able to get out,” McClain said. “But as fire chief I have a lot of authority but not enough to tell the State to reopen the road.”

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal said he’s contacted Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to speed up the repair process. “It’s a problem that causes uncertainty, but it’s something we’re confident we can take care of,” Carbajal said.

But Carbajal promptly added that because Sycamore Canyon is a state byway, “the County has only a minor role in” finding a solution.

Caltrans representatives said when repairs begin, their office will have no oversight or authority over the hillside. The announcement left some attendees of the meeting questioning where they would get their answers.

WATSON REVEALS ‘EYE ON MONTECITO’ MYSTERIES

Before press time and on the eve of the Village Fourth Parade and Celebration, MJ’s “Eye on Montecito” writer and artist John Watson notified us saying he wouldn’t be revealing his four mystery answers on July 4. He said due to a clerical error, his presentation wouldn’t be ready.

In the four past issues, Mr. Watson has reported on various county landmarks and left mystery questions on each of them. The answers follow:

1. The mailbox that appeared in Issue # 12/10 under the headline “Craftsmanship Versus Machine-Made” graces the entrance to El Mirador on Cold Spring Road.

2. The man buried in the “larger than life” mausoleum was Russel Heath, a once prominent lawyer, district attorney and member of the State Assembly. Watson’s original article on this subject appeared in the # 12/11 issue under the headline, “Live Large, Die Larger.”

3. Famed architect Reginald Johnson (Biltmore Hotel, Music Academy of the West’s Mira Flores building) quit the architecture business and became one of the original founders of the Los Angeles Citizen Housing Council. In “Eye on Montecito” issue # 12/12, Watson includes a watercolor of the Mira Flores building and expands on Johnson’s career.

4. The Arlington Theatre is one of Santa Barbara’s most recognizable buildings, but few people know it from every angle, Watson asserts. The building, which combines modern abstraction with traditional Spanish architecture elements, is the answer to Watson’s fourth and final mystery. Watson’s article on the Arlington can be found online in Journal archives (“Eye on Santa Barbara” issue # 12/13) at www.montecitojournal.net.