Montecito Needs a Blue Ribbon Panel

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has agreed to explore the possibility of forming an independent blue ribbon panel to look at how the planning process in Montecito can be improved. For those of us who support such a review, Supervisor Carbajal's decision is a welcome development. This is the first step toward a more democratic planning process upon which the residents of Montecito can rely without ambiguity, subjectivity and undue delay.

Carbajal has asked Michael Cooney, chairman of the County Planning Commission, to look at the possibility of forming this panel. Specifically, he has asked Mr. Cooney to make recommendations both about the validity of the panel idea and what subjects it would undertake to review. Mr. Cooney, noted for his thorough, intelligent and respectful manner, has begun this process.

After he finishes his research, Cooney will forward his conclusions to Supervisor Carbajal. If Carbajal decides to go forward with a review, he will charge the panel to create an “action agenda” which, subject to his own review, he would present to the entire County Board of Supervisors for an up or down vote.

Clearly, we think that a meaningful review of the planning process in Montecito is long overdue. For example, Hank Hurst, an eight-year Montecito resident who wants to build a new home on his Park Lane property, has submitted to the County adequate designs that have yet to reach approval. Hurst introduced his development to the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) in February of last year and subsequently presented them another five times. The plans were denied on the basis that the home was too large and that the project was too inadequate to satisfy immediate neighbors. When Hurst appealed to the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC), each commissioner acknowledged that his plans were all within the applicable design guidelines. Nevertheless, the commission sent him back to the MBAR for further review. In our estimation, if an applicant’s plans are within design guidelines, he should be approved. This shouldn't be an ambiguous process. Otherwise, why have guidelines?

We understand that there are subjective neighborhood compatibility questions and other minor issues to consider, but Mr. Hurst’s next appearance before the MBAR will be his seventh. Another presentation before the MPC means that 14 months will have gone by since Hurst first submitted his plans. While some may find that normal for Montecito, we find it simply appalling that consensus has not already been reached.

Watch for the Assault

It appears that a potential assault on the integrity of the Montecito Community Plan has been launched by John Baker, the director of County Planning & Development. In a letter that otherwise recommends very good efficiencies to the County planning process, Mr. Baker proposed to “standardize the community plans to ensure consistency with the County General Plan, as included in the Comprehensive Planning Work Program.” What this means is that Baker wants to “eliminate duplication of policies between the Comprehensive Plan Elements and the community plans; standardize the layout of the community plans; standardize policy language between community plans on standard issues such as noise, archaeology, etc.; and limit future community plans to issues such as Land Use that require a unique treatment in communities.”

Historically, planning changes of this sort would be fed through the County Planning Commission, but Mr. Baker has proposed these changes directly to the Board of Supervisors with an approval recommendation but with no notice to the Montecito community. In fact, we understand that the County Planning Commission was not even given notice. Thus, neither the residents of Montecito nor any other community with a local community plan will have had an opportunity to review the implications of these proposed changes.

This proposal was originally scheduled to go before the board on March 6 but was continued until March 13. The Board of Supervisors agreed on Tuesday after numerous speakers defended the integrity of community plans to accept the standardized format portions of Baker’s report, but specifically requested that planning staff return to the board in June to revisit the rest of the issues, including standardizing the community plans.

A number of community activists, including the Voices of Montecito, are going to continue to speak against abrupt changes to the Montecito Community Plan, and it is vital to our local interests that our voices prevail. It is precisely this kind of issue which argues for greater local control, and if our government continues to threaten the special character of Montecito, it is very likely going to raise the cityhood question for a third, and perhaps final, time.