With millions of dollars at stake and the welfare of residents on the line, Montecito land use cases can often produce enough drama to reach soap opera proportions. But seldom do these cases reach epic levels quite like Rob Lowe’s construction of his mega-sized Montecito home.

In August of last year, the actor applied to the County to build a nearly 10,000-square-foot residence on his 3.4-acre Picacho Lane property. In addition to the house, Lowe asked for an 800-square-foot guesthouse, an 800-square-foot second-story cabana, 800-square-foot garage and other ancillary objects of comfort – tennis court, pool and spa – to accompany the compound. For ongoing weeks, Lowe, his designers and legal team were involved in intense negotiations with neighbors and in multiple meetings with the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, who gave unanimous approval of the project. (MBAR member Don Nulty, Lowe’s architect, recused himself from casting a vote.)

It wasn’t until the issue reached the Montecito Planning Commission docket last month, though, that the Lowe case escalated to dramatic heights. Until then it had been shrouded in anonymity; Lowe’s application was handed in under the title Berkoff Trust and his name appeared only a few times in planning documents.

At the June 21 planning commission hearing, Lowe made his grand appearance and testified on his own behalf, his face plastered on County television, his quotes jotted down by present reporters. The planning commission approved the project narrowly (3-2) and the Santa Barbara News-Press ran a front page article chronicling the events and the paper published Lowe’s exact address. When the actor complained directly to News-Press owner Wendy McCaw that his privacy had been violated, his actions sent the paper into inner turmoil. McCaw immediately created a new policy banning the publishing of addresses and she sent letters of reprimand to each of the people supposedly involved in the story – reporter Camilla Cohee and editors George Foulsham, Jane Hulse and Michael Todd – who each reportedly retaliated with letters of protest. Resentments in the newsroom simmered long enough to bring about the eventual departures of six editors, among them editor Jerry Roberts, and columnist Barney Brantingham.

The Lowe saga has had supplementary consequences. The actor’s neighbor, Fred Gluck, former vice-chair and director of the Bechtel Group, a 40,000-employee construction and engineering corporation, appealed the planning commission approval to the County Board of Supervisors, thereby darkening the case with new shades of noticeability.

The appeal creates a sticky situation for County supervisors, who are reputably uncomfortable mediating between squabbling neighbors in land use cases, especially if their verdicts lead to lawsuits.

From a development perspective, Lowe’s case could mark a turning point in how land use cases are decided. Residents outraged by the size of Lowe’s request have demanded that decision makers show some restraint. County officials have reacted by holding private sessions to negotiate the creation of a policy that could result in new interpretations about the appropriate size of a house in Montecito.

Neighbor to Neighbor

Despite the debate’s tandem of high profile personalities, Fred Gluck said, “It’s not about me and Rob Lowe, it’s about land use.” According to County planning materials, Lowe’s house exceeds the property’s recommended floor area ratio (FAR) by 18%. “The house is just way too big,” Gluck said.

Gluck argues that the size and placement of the requested structures, in addition to plantings on Lowe’s property, interfere with his oceanic views. Gluck’s attorney, Derek Westen, said Lowe and his associates had agreed to accommodate for the views if Gluck abandoned his dispute. But Westen claimed Lowe reneged on the arrangement. “The Lowes’ approach to this case is simply un-neighborly,” Westen said. “I don’t think they’ve dealt with us very fairly, ever.”

Even though Gluck’s Picacho Lane home also violates recommended floor area ratio guidelines, Westen said Lowe’s house should be in proportion to the size of houses in the neighborhood. “I really do believe that projects should be built or developed in a way that’s appropriate,” he said. “If we don’t do this we will lose the character of Montecito and all of its open space.”

Indeed, Montecito Planning Commissioners who opposed the project shared Westen’s sentiments. Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker, who along with Planning Commission chair Bob Meghreblian voted against the renovation, said she would have approved it if Lowe had asked for less. “I felt really strongly that this house was going to be the biggest house in the neighborhood,” she explained. “I’m so generally opposed to ratchet up the numbers.”

But some planning officials were quick to point out that Montecito Community Plan recommendations about the size and scale of a home were only “guidelines” and therefore not County law. Since the Montecito Planning Commission’s inception three years ago, decision makers have regularly approved projects that exceed size limitations, and officials said now’s not the time to break tradition.

“You can’t change a policy in the middle of a hearing,” said Tony Spann, chair of the Montecito Board and Architectural Review. “You don’t knee-jerk because you want to single out this guy (Lowe).”

Planning Commissioners who approved Lowe’s construction followed the same tact, saying preferential treatment to Gluck would set an unwanted precedent. “What concerned me was that for the first time in Montecito we would have the County granting a project with the condition that vegetation was kept a certain height to satisfy a neighbor,” said commissioner Michael Phillips. “We can’t do that; that’s impossible, if not impractical to do that.”

Tony Spann said it was crucial for decision makers not to vote based on the personalities involved, but instead on the individual merits of the case. “What you don’t do and what the Glucks have done is put the County in the middle of it,” he said. “We weren’t very comfortable with that. I think that’s what the issue is all about.”

Change of Policy

At the Montecito Association, it wasn’t the homeowners organization’s involvement with the Rob Lowe case that provoked disagreements, but rather its lack of involvement. During the Association Land Use Committee’s July 5 meeting, chair Susan Keller expressed dismay that Association President Bob Collector had informed members not to participate in the Lowe hearing. “I thought it was a loss for us not to testify,” Keller said in a phone interview.

The Land Use Committee later adopted a new policy requiring Association members to attend all planning commission hearings, a decision that was ratified a week later by the Association’s Board of Directors.

“I think as a matter of practice we should have a member there at every appeal unless we determine it is a minor neighbor to neighbor issue,” said Ted Stern, Land Use Committee member.

Former Association president and current Land Use member J’Amy Brown said the new policy was important in reaffirming the Association’s duty to its members and fellow residents. “We have until this year always attended every hearing,” Brown said. “If we’re not discussing land use issues, why are we meeting on Tuesdays?”

Montecito Planning Commissioners, who normally relish the Association’s input, said they were taken aback by the Association’s absence. “In this particular instance, I was surprised that they weren’t there because the Montecito Association has always been around when issues dealing with size, bulk and scale are being discussed,” said Claire Gottsdanker.

But Collector disputed those claims, saying because the Association had yet to deliberate over the Lowe matter, it would have been improper for members to weigh in. “Everything in my experience has been done on an issue to issue basis,” he said. “It’s easy to say, ‘oh, a board member should be there all the time.’ But we can’t just go into a hearing and shoot from the hip.”

Given the Association’s “sensitive negotiations” with the MBAR over floor area ratios, Collector also said getting involved with the Lowe proceedings would have been impolite. “It’s an easy thing to say the Association missed it on this issue,” Collector said. “We didn’t miss anything.”

Tony Spann agreed, saying, “If we’re in a meeting it would be improper or inappropriate for someone to come in” and broadcast their opinions.