Montecito Association Under Fire

Past Presidents Defend Their Policies

Montecito is no accident. The people who study the town with a near sense of obsession say that careful, almost surgical planning and deliberation have resulted in today’s Montecito that residents know and love. And it didn’t happen overnight. For the past 58 years, the Montecito Association, a homeowners group of more than 1,000 households, has seen itself as the protector and promoter of that end product. Through its committees of volunteers, land use study teams, monthly meetings and annual celebrations, the organization once gained a reputation for preserving the local quality of living. But lately the Montecito Association has been under heavy fire from community critics who have characterized it as despotic, making decisions based on the will of a few people rather than through consensus. The brunt of the pressure has come primarily from representatives of Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts and a separate, but like-minded cadre of local residents who say Association directors have treated developers like Ty Warner unfairly and who believe the organization has no place in land use study. Current and past officers of the Montecito Association say they’ve been misrepresented.

The most severe complaints about the homeowners group have arisen during the last month, after Ty Warner said he would sell the Miramar Hotel because he didn’t believe Association leaders would give fair treatment to a future renovation. The hotelier’s fans jumped on the announcement by forming the Voices of Montecito, a coalition of residents dedicated to repairing a County planning process they claim is broken. They have since met to strategize their plans and have followed the Association’s every move with close scrutiny. While they welcome the public debate, past Association presidents say the stress imposed on them has been exaggerated.

“The people who are exerting this pressure don’t always have the right information,” said Patty Bliss, who served as Association president from 1986 to 1989.

While people have leveled accusations at the organization, the Association leadership has stayed relatively quiet, deflecting criticisms made by the Warner camp but keeping mum otherwise. Ms Bliss admits that Association leaders “could have replied to their critics a bit sooner.”

So far, though, it is difficult to determine whether the attention has brought any damage. At the end of November the organization membership stood at 1,089, up 12 from the previous month, but down from the 1,245 figure from last year. December statistics have yet to be released.

Voices of Montecito members have said they wouldn’t cancel their memberships because they would prefer having a presence on the Association’s Board of Directors. While the Association has already sent out its election ballot to fill the six available director positions, Voices of Montecito is planning to nominate one “write-in” candidate, J. W. Colin, a 25-year Montecito resident and former facilities engineer for IBM. Association leaders say they welcome the nomination and will give it the fullest consideration.

“We are always out there looking for new people,” said Bob Collector, the Association’s president and a current Journal columnist. “If you really want to be involved, come on. Get in a place of leadership.”

Recent scrutiny of the Association seems to have done nothing to hurt its standing among County leaders. Montecito Planning Commissioners, who have worked closely with the homeowners group this year to clarify local architectural guidelines, said the Association provides a resonant voice when it comes to land use issues. The commission’s chair, Bob Meghreblian, who served as Association president in 1995 and 1996, said he always counts on the Association’s recommendations when crafting his decisions.

“As an advisory agency, it’s really valuable to us exactly because of the type of analysis that they can do,” said Bob Bierig, a Montecito Planning Commissioner and former Montecito Association president. “They can really look at things in depth and they are not constrained by the Brown Act (the public meeting law), which really prevents us from having that kind of dialogue.”

To some skeptics, the Association’s close ties with the commissioners implies a degree of favoritism. But Bierig rejects that idea, saying he and fellow commissioners are not always influenced by the Association. A case in point would be the recent Westmont College expansion in which the Association recommended a slew of approval conditions, but the Commission only took one into account.

“The Association is just one of many voices that we listen to,” Bierig said.

Four years ago, Association leaders worried how the formation of the Montecito Planning Commission would impact their local standing. Since then, complaints have abounded about how the Association’s role in land use creates a redundancy in the planning process because applicants are often encouraged by planning staff to present their projects before the Association. Even now, Association members dismiss the notion of an overlap, saying applicants do and should expect several groups to view their projects.

The Association’s recent challenges may stem from an era that has seen some of the biggest and costliest development proposals in the history of Montecito. The past three years have seen renovation hearings for the Music Academy of the West, the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel, the Coral Casino and Westmont College, all polarizing projects that can leave the Association open to criticism.

“It seems to me that this is a critical time for the Association – in my experience there is more going on and there are more problems than I’ve seen in any time for the last fifty years,” said Art Henzell, who was Association president in 1971. “The Association is here to take the brunt of the pressure and they take it very well.”

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal agreed, saying big projects come in phases. “The nature of land use provides for natural conflict,” he said. “I don’t want to say the Association deserves or doesn’t deserve the pressure, but it’s a byproduct of our land use heritage.”

Dealing with communication issues has also been an obstacle for the Association. Voices of Montecito members have complained about their inability to obtain important materials from the Association’s website, including the organization’s bylaws. In recent years, the website, www.montecitoassociation.org, made available several documents, including the Association’s financial status. In 2005, the directors voted to remove the Treasurer’s Report from online and gradually other information has been taken off also, such as meeting agendas and minutes.

Collector attributes the changes to technological “growing pains,” saying the website is under reconstruction, but will be equipped with all the right materials once it is completed.

“I think it shows that we try to be very responsive,” Collector said. “If people need things that we can provide them, we do.”