A Privilege We Don’t Take for Granted

by David K. Winter

(Dr. Winter is Westmont’s chancellor)

From the day I began my tenure as president in 1976, I have shared Westmont’s conviction that our location in Montecito is a tremendous privilege. I have treated our ability to participate in the local democratic process as a unique blessing.

One of my first goals was to work with neighbors and the greater community to determine whether we could fulfill our enrollment goal of 1,200 students and implement a Campus Master Plan to serve that ultimate enrollment.

After a lively, thorough public review process, the Montecito Association and Santa Barbara County approved an enrollment cap of 1,200 in 1976. At the same time, a Campus Master Plan to support 1,200 students was also approved.

Today, Westmont is not only legally bound to maintain an average of no more than 1,200, the college is totally content with this limit. Many of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country are about this same size.

Since 1976, only three of the buildings approved in 1976 and re-approved numerous times (most recently in 1993) have been constructed. As a result, there is a severe lack of space for our 1,200 students. I know this shortage hampers student experiences more and more.

We now have the opportunity to move forward with an update to the Approved Campus Master Plan that is much better for our neighbors, the college and the environment than the plan approved 30 years ago.

The idea to update the Approved Campus Master Plan originated with the County Planning Department. In the mid-1990s – as we looked to construct the next two approved buildings we could fund – the County asked us to update our approved plan.

The goal of the update, which has now gone through more than six years of public review, was to ensure our Approved Campus Master Plan was up-to-date with modern environmental and planning standards, as well as with campus needs we didn’t foresee when the existing plan was approved.

Throughout the update process, the feedback of campus neighbors and community leaders has been extremely important. We have held more than 100 neighborhood and community meetings, and we continue to do so. The latest meetings took place last month.

Early on, even though County staff said it wasn’t necessary, Westmont asked that the County prepare an Environmental Impact Report, or EIR, to ensure that every possible concern was studied and addressed. Today, an unprecedented three rounds of environmental review have confirmed that the updated Campus Master Plan is better for the environment, campus neighbors and the college than the existing approved plan.

Because the focus has been environmental impacts, we didn’t receive formal feedback on the proposed campus design and architecture until recently. The feedback we received in May from the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) was at first very disappointing.

After listening closely to comments at two consecutive MBAR meetings, we requested a 60-day pause in the hearings. We added more local expertise to our planning team, and we loosened some internal constraints to create more design options by allowing the reconfiguration of existing campus buildings and infrastructure.

This was a very difficult decision, especially at the tail end of a nearly decade-long review process that at times has been abusive and frustrating. Yet we remained steadfast in our commitment to make every effort to address valid community concerns.

With the help of local architects David VanHoy and Ken Radtkey, we took a fresh look at the campus and altered some of our original design parameters. Rather than emphasizing small building footprints and taller buildings, the revised plan integrates buildings into the natural contours of the campus, enhancing Westmont’s garden atmosphere while complying with recently adopted height guidelines.

I am very proud that more than 80 of our 111 acres will remain as open and landscaped space.

Rather than make the architecture of Kerrwood Hall the model for future buildings, the revised plans use sustainable architecture and place Kerrwood on a pedestal.

Last Monday, the Montecito Board of Architectural Review gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the entire campus design concept and the architecture of the first phase of construction. Equally important, we received the official endorsement of a group of our closest neighbors, who for the first time expressed their support for our updated campus design, finding it compatible with the neighborhood.

To address any remaining concerns, we have agreed to adopt a number of strict conditions, including a permanent cap on all Westmont traffic on Cold Spring Road. I can also assure that Westmont will remain a college of no more than 1,200 students. We will continue to treasure the privilege of our Montecito location.

As the last lingering issues with the update are worked out, we can all take great pride in our community and democratic process. Thank you to everyone involved for your patience and hard work.

A Strain on Limits

by Laura Collector

(Mrs. Collector, a Montecito resident, is a member of Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion)

Westmont College’s newest redesign is clearly superior to the earlier version. Better sites are used, and the buildings are far less boxy and institutional. But neighbors retain major concerns about the project’s overall scale and neighborhood compatibility impacts.

Westmont seeks permission to build an unprecedented number of total square feet in a residential area – nine acres worth of new buildings – to bring the campus infrastructure to a total of more than 750,000 square feet. No residential developer would ever be allowed to build this many square feet on the same piece of ground. Why should Westmont, which operates under a conditional use permit, or CUP, be unfettered by the square footage and compatibility guidelines that govern the rest of us? Why should anyone in the community – especially an entity that doesn’t even pay property taxes – get more land development rights than everyone else? Our Montecito Community Plan does not have different standards of compatibility depending on who the property owner is.

Westmont says it needs to double the square feet of its current campus to serve its students. However, when Westmont received permission to grow to 1,200 students, that approval was predicated upon the college’s pledge not to seek a large-scale campus. Neighbors fear that doubling the campus’s physical size will surely lead to student, staff, faculty or program/event growth. Westmont says this won’t happen. But that’s what it said when it increased to 1,200 students, and, contrary to its assurances, the college dramatically increased its faculty and staff, which sent traffic through the roof.

Obviously, a college’s plans can change – but the changing desires of the college should never be allowed to force changes to the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

The documented reality is that traffic correlates not only to the number of students but also to the number of faculty and staff. Holding enrollment steady is meaningless if the number of faculty or staff increases – and that is certain with the addition of almost 400,000 square feet of new buildings.

Daily trips to campus are now double the number that the college originally projected. The college generates some 3,600 vehicle trips a day on Cold Spring Road, about 75% of all traffic. Traffic alone threatens our residential semi-rural character and must be brought back under control. Westmont traffic is easily four times what residential development of the same parcel would bring.

This super-sized facilities will require a great deal of revenue to build, maintain, furnish and staff. Westmont claims it does not even have enough money to provide realistic mitigations to Cold Spring School – even though this cost is minuscule next to ongoing costs of the building project it now seeks. The college can only raise revenue in four ways: outright donations, increased tuition, increased numbers of students or increased events. The first two options are clearly maximized already. The second two will hurt our community and must never be allowed.

This time, Westmont’s ‘assurances’ must be backed by concrete guarantees. Neighbors can only support additional buildings on campus if the college’s promises are meaningfully enforceable:

1. Westmont must agree to a deed restriction capping in perpetuity the total number of students, employees and average daily vehicle trips to numbers ensuring neighborhood compatibility.

2. Westmont must pay its proportionate share towards community costs (like Cold Spring School’s operational and facilities needs) as many other colleges do, in the form of PILOT (“payment in lieu of taxes”).

3. Westmont’s CUP restrictions must be made more explicit to ensure that the number of events and visitor trips to campus will be controlled.

4. Westmont should be granted only a small entitlement at present – no more than what they currently have enough money to build. Entitlements to future buildings and future phases should be withheld until the results of the first round of construction are known, to protect the community from unforeseen problems that can (and always do) crop up.

The Montecito Community Plan cannot explicitly foresee every future land use situation – particularly not the desire for exponential growth by a CUP holder in a residential neighborhood. But the intent of the Community Plan is abundantly clear: to preserve and protect the green, open, semi-rural and residential “feel” of this community.

That’s why Montecito is so special – and why the college would rather be here than in some other place that would allow untrammeled growth.

Many can sympathize with Westmont’s main argument: that it wants to be competitive with other higher-tier colleges. But the need or desire of a landowner – however compelling – cannot be allowed to take precedence over sound land use policy guidelines that govern us all, nor over the health, welfare and character of the entire community. The college is straining the limits of what can be considered compatible already. If we are not careful at this juncture, it will rupture them.