Last week, shortly after the County Board of Supervisors awarded Ty Warner a complete approval of his Biltmore seawall repair and renovation, Brooks Firestone issued a critical eleventh hour proposal. After reprimanding the Montecito Planning Commission for what he termed an “abuse of process,” the Third District Supervisor suggested reforming planning procedures to spare future applicants from having to appeal, after the fact, needless conditions of approval. It is unfortunate Firestone’s fellow supervisors did not take him up on his recommendation.

Recall that in August the Montecito Planning Commission approved the seawall project but attached a last-minute condition requiring that the Butterfly Beach stair design not include bricks so it wouldn’t look too much like the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel. This condition was ostensibly attached to the permit to ensure that the public would not be “intimidated” from using the public access easement over the stairs to the beach below. Mr. Warner appealed, and rightfully so.

The real issue raised by the appeal, while touched upon by Supervisor Firestone, wasn’t, however, as directly addressed as it should have been. Most important was the blatant violation of Mr. Warner’s civil rights by the manner in which his permit application to replace and improve the beach access stairwell on his property was handled.

When the Planning Commission attached the condition after public comment had closed, it refused Mr. Warner’s representatives any opportunity to respond or address the added conditions. If commissioners were so concerned about public perception of access, certainly the subject of added signage or some other equally simple solution could have been addressed at the Planning Commission stage of the proceedings and mollified their concerns. Alas, Mr. Warner was not afforded the opportunity to offer additional “public access” signage until last week’s hearing.

So you say, it’s just a set of stairs, what’s the big deal? But, in fact, it is a much bigger issue than a set of stairs. It is about the fundamental fairness of the land use planning process in Montecito and treatment of our citizens, which took a big hit in this process.

We should all be concerned that by shutting the applicant out of the discussion, the Planning Commission violated his right to due process under the Constitution. Commissioners also forced him to spend thousands of dollars to file an appeal, have his architects and lawyers expend further time and energy preparing the appeal and attending the hearing. No matter how much money he has, it is wrong to have treated him this way and to leave him holding the tab for this abuse of process.

We should all be asking how the planning process can be improved so no one else has to rely on such an appeal and incur this substantial expense to protect his or her basic rights. Is there an interim step of redress or reconsideration that can be offered an applicant before full-blown appeals are filed and the “big guns” have to be called in?

Duplication of Process?

This incident also offers us an opportunity to look at what role the Montecito Association plays, or should play, in the land use process in our community.

In its recent actions, including the role it played in the Warner beach access stairway project (its Land Use Committee supported the Planning Commission vote), the Bonnymede crosswalk and Westmont College’s renovation and expansion plan, has the Montecito Association been honoring its original mission? Is it reflecting the concerns and desires of the community it serves?

The Montecito Association began 58 years ago as the Montecito Preservation Committee, dedicated to preserving the very special rural, residential character of Montecito. Though a purely advocacy association with no legal power, it became a respected and powerful protector of Montecito in the County land use process. It accomplished, through the enormous hard work and vision of dedicated volunteers, a Community Plan that has served the community well. It has, for many years, successfully accomplished its original goals of preservation, community beautification and development of a sense of community among Montecito residents.

However, Montecito now has its own Board of Architectural Review and Planning Commission. So long as the Board of Supervisors periodically renews the authority and funding to continue the Board of Architectural Review and Planning Commission, how does that affect the Montecito Association’s role in land use planning? Should it even have a role in that process? Is its planning contribution now duplicative? If the Montecito Association should have a role in the local land use planning and permitting process, what should it be?

This is a dialogue worth having in order to avoid repetitions of the Biltmore stairway fiasco in the future. As neighbors, certainly we should treat one another better than this.