A Guide to Montecito’s Acronym Galaxy

When my wife and I first looked to buy a home in Montecito, a local architect consulted on the properties we considered, as most were fixers. From both this architect and our realtor, we quickly learned a fact of life here: construction is a nightmare, particularly the planning and permitting stages.

Soon fast-rising building costs dashed our hopes of remodeling, but friends said we were lucky not to be in that hell of acronyms: MA, LUC, ARC, BAR, P&D etc. Their horror stories were legion: Who in the process decides what and when? What are true standards, to whom do they apply, and who applies them? Why does everything take so damn long?

Now this was in the ‘90s, before everybody needed a permit planner (assisted by a lawyer and architect) to navigate the seemingly arbitrary and Byzantine process. Today people are divided whether it’s better or worse, though we at the Association still detect considerable confusion among Montecitans about penetrating that same bureaucratic fog I encountered upon moving here.

So this is my attempt at Process for Dummies:

Any land use project, big or small, begins with a set of plans. Until 2002 Montecitans initially submitted these plans to the Architectural Review Committee (ARC) of the Montecito Association (MA). The plans would be processed through three stages of review, conceptual, preliminary and final. And once the final was approved on the consent calendar of the next Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, the County Planning & Development (P&D) staff would issue a land use permit (LUC) allowing the applicant to begin construction.

In 2002, the ARC was replaced by the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR), an agency of the County of Santa Barbara tasked to perform the exact review done by the ARC. Yes, the MBAR meets at Montecito Community Hall, where the ARC used to meet and where the Montecito Association currently meets, at the same times and with many of the same architects, but the governing authority is now the County Planning & Development Department, not the Montecito Association.

Should the MBAR (or the ARC previously) not grant final approval to plans, and the County Planning & Development staff not issue an LUP, applicants have the right to appeal to the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC).

In 2002, the MPC (and MBAR) were established by the Board of Supervisors, the MPC replacing the long-standing Montecito Association Land Use Committee (LUC). As the Architectural Board of Review determines a project’s compliance with architectural guidelines, the Montecito Planning Commission (and the LUC before it) determines a project’s land use compliance with the Montecito Community Plan (MPC), contained within the Montecito Land Use & Development Code, by classifying and regulating the use of land and structures within the MPC area. The code was adopted “to provide standards and guidelines for the continuing orderly growth and development of the Montecito community that will assist in protecting the character and stability of agricultural, residential and commercial uses, as well as the character and identity of the Montecito community; to preserve and protect Montecito’s natural beauty and setting; to crate a comprehensible and stable pattern of land uses; to encourage the most appropriate uses of land in order to prevent overcrowding and avoid undue concentration of population, and maintain and protect property value; and encourage compatibility between different types of development and land use.”

So this is the MPC’s charter: to determine whether projects – big or small – comply with all land use codes, the same charter fulfilled from 1949 until 2002 by the Montecito Association LUC, all decisions being governed by the identical zoning criteria County staff used. Thus decisions were technical, never arbitrary, which was why the MA’s advisory decisions were rubber-stamped by County planning commissioners, and appeals were few.

Residential Land Use Permits (RLU) are different than Conditional Land Use Permits (CUP) and Coastal Development Permits (CDP), which apply to hotels, clubs, churches, schools, cemeteries, special districts – in other words, any of the 28 non-residential uses in Montecito.

When a Development Permit- or Conditional Permit-holder wishes changes or updates, plans must first go through architectural review, then land use review by the County Planning & Development staff. Occasionally, with projects of scale, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) to help determine neighborhood compatibility. The EIR is an evaluation tool the Planning Commission uses along with the Planning & Development staff report, an analysis of the project’s consistency with all appropriate land use and development codes as specified in the MCP.

The MPC is the final authority on all land use issues in Montecito, including appeals of land use permits (LUPs), granted or denied, and ordinance amendments. And like its antecedent, the Montecito Association LUC, decisions of the MPC can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Today, then, applicants with land use issues frequently present them to the Montecito Association either while they’re in the Architectural Review process, or after they’ve received final approval. Why? Because a recommendation from the MA is an important advisory comment to the MPC, as our judgments often support or act as foil to the County Staff report. And as the land use zoning criteria are the same, differing perspectives often make for better solutions, certainly better debate.

In order then: architectural review first; issuance of a building permit once final review is achieved; any land use issues must be determined by the MPC; and the timeframe for the MPC only begins when a project staff report is published.

Simple? Probably not. But every organization in the current matrix – MA, MBAR, MPC, P&D – is committed to faster and better service and more transparency. Will it ever happen? Unfortunately probably not when real estate is so valuable in 93108. But maybe, in the overall scheme of things, it’s not such a stiff price to pay for those of us lucky enough to live here.