Normally when I’ve written the Journal for the Montecito Association, it’s been a form of triage during a land use controversy, articulating a position or correcting, we hope, misinformation from those who disagree with us. But this time it’s blessedly different.

Starting with this issue, I’ll be writing an informal monthly column that shares our current agenda, and attempts to provide a more personal perspective on the issues we struggle with, trying to best represent the households who’ve supported us for nearly 60 years. The following should offer the appropriate brief to our current menu.

October: we wrestled with the revised Westmont College expansion plan, a Measure D recommendation, various Ty Warner properties in the planning and permitting process, traffic thresholds and road safety policy discussions with the County, the Cold Spring School bond Measure K, Proposition 90 (to take a position or not?), the ongoing Zoning Ordinance Reformatting Project (ZORP), traffic safety issues at Montecito Union School, a proposed 50-foot Cingular cell tower next to Cold Spring School, appeals before the Montecito Planning Commission and County Board of Supervisors, continued Montecito Board of Architectural Review guidelines review, Montecito Beautification Day, our semi-annual Homeowners Association meeting, various encroachment permits to sign off on – and if that’s not enough, the governed-by-by-laws process of recruiting and electing new board directors for the 2007-10 term.

This was an average month for the 16 other directors I’m privileged to work with: three lawyers, two other writers (I’m one), two realtors, two former publishers, three corporate execs (one of whom is ex-city manager of San Jose), two local entrepreneurs, an ex-Defense Department negotiator and Stanford grad Jean von Wittenburg, who styles herself a “household engineer.”

Morph us all together and we’re you, a six-decade continuum of our local body politic, who must have done something right for Montecito to be what it is today, not only a magnificent place to live, but (whether good or bad) a worldwide brand.

Nuts and Bolts

So what’s ‘wrestling with the revised Westmont expansion plan’ mean? Or our ‘review’ of a Warner property? What is it that we actually do with the agenda I just outlined?

For decades the Association has reviewed land use projects precisely how a Planning Commission does: reading Planning & Development staff reports, taking public input and calculating the proposed project’s compliance with the Montecito Community Plan.

Lots of work. You bet. We’re a sort of Neighborhood Watch, doing your due diligence, trying to ensure that all planning is consistent with established guidelines and interpretations of neighborhood compatibility. This usually means lots of reading, site visits, inviting applicants to present projects and listening to neighbors who worry they might be negatively impacted. First our Land Use Committee crafts its recommendation to the Board, then our Board of Directors considers it, often with input from applicants, County staff and other stakeholders. It’s this recommendation, the Board’s, that the Association then presents to whatever deliberative body – Planning Commission, Board of Supervisors, etc – is determining the project.

So with Westmont, the Coral Casino or the Music Academy of the West, for instance, we’re talking about thousands of pages to digest, and the requisite hours spent in study groups and meetings, often with our land use consultant Victoria Greene (an ex-County planner). There are fewer pages to read with residential, statutory or policy issues, fewer meetings required to get one’s arms around an issue, but the sheer scope, the perpetual business of land use-related projects in the nine square miles of Montecito, requires an organizational vigilance.

At least that’s what the Association’s founders believed in 1948. With its own, unique zoning ordinance, the Montecito Protective and Improvement Association wisely concluded enforcing it was a pain in the rear to County staff, who neither lived in 93108 nor even cared. So its directors started reviewing projects themselves to guarantee the ordinance’s standards were being upheld. Maybe it sounds old and stodgy – slowing the process down, adding another needless layer (critics have always argued) – but the community supported it.

And after a while, the land use and architectural review performed by the Association proved so technically sound that it was impossible not to notice. The process made projects better. It was undeniable. The self-review had become culture, and P&D staff began accepting our judgments as gospel, simply adding them to the County Planning Commission’s monthly consent calendar; in effect, applying a rubber stamp.

Today, though we have our own Planning Commission, the culture remains. We review all significant projects, not only because we’ve done it for years and the process works, but because our commissioners ask us to. It’s not a matter of not trusting County staff, but of also trusting Montecitans to offer the same quality of informed advice and perspective that guided Montecito’s development since Truman was president. Volunteers. Idealists working for no benefit beyond preserving and protecting our community.

Our community. Nine square miles unlike any other. Why we do what we do. Because we’re here. In paradise.