Siemens Gets OK on Sub-acre Parcel

Commission: Decision Was No Walk in the Park

In the latest and perhaps final chapter of a storied case that goes back about a decade, the Montecito Planning Commission last Wednesday gave developer Wayne Siemens permission to build a home on a less-than-one-acre Park Lane West property. With the 3-1 approval, the commission removed a more than 40-year-old notation restricting development on the narrow property, despite urgent warnings from neighbors that such a decision would create a dangerous precedent.

The decision also authorizes the relocation of a County trail that currently splits Siemens’s property along San Ysidro Creek. A County Parks representative and a project biologist determined that moving that portion of San Ysidro Trail away from the creek would benefit the “sensitive” wildlife and vegetative habitat.

That assessment proved significant for at least one planning commissioner, who said a development approval could protect the natural setting from further human disturbance.

“The habitat has been so destroyed that we have an opportunity to fix it,” said Commissioner Michael Phillips, a member of the voting majority. “It’s really hard to deprive someone of their own property.”

Multiple neighbors argued against the relocation, saying it would deprive them exposure to a woodsy area that hosts an abundance of flora and fauna.

“The proposed development is speculative and is not based on need,” said Adam Rhodes, a Park Hill Lane resident, in a letter to the commission. “It is not reasonable to diminish the recreational enjoyment of many people and the overall nature of the area for one speculative developer.”

Residents have until April 2 to appeal the decision to the County Board of Supervisors. Though commissioners had expected an appeal to take place, James Wolf, a Park Lane West resident, said Tuesday he and fellow neighbors had so far agreed that continued objections to the project would be futile.

The Siemens case is similar to last year’s Jack Maxwell proceedings in that it readdressed a compelling debate about development on substandard lots and those impacts on low-profile neighborhoods. In the case of Maxwell, County decision makers heeded calls from neighborhood protectionists that the developer’s bid to divide his Summit Road property into three buildable lots would test the validity of the Montecito Community Plan and trigger a domino effect of development in the area. Maxwell has sued the County over its denial in a case that heads to court this spring.

In the Siemens matter, the developer has been seeking permission to build on a parcel measuring .84 acres since the mid-1990s, a rollercoaster ride that has taken him through multiple dealings with County decision makers.

The commission’s decision last Wednesday did not approve designs for a home, though architect Bob Easton did present rough sketches for a one-story private residence in the 4,000-square-foot range.

Contention over whether Siemens’s property is buildable hinges on a 1961 decision that split his lot from its parent parcel, the San Ysidro Ranch. In that split, an “applicant for the San Ysidro Ranch” had inscribed a key notation on a plat map specifying that the lot should “not be used as a separate building site.” County records, however, indicate the 1961 action letter had no condition language “either prohibiting or allowing development on the lot.”

Those conflicting findings made the Siemens case a tough one to decide, according to Commissioner Bob Bierig, the commission’s chair, who said the approval was the toughest he’d made “in my four years on the planning commission.”

Bierig said his decision was heavily influenced by the existence of “can and will serve” letters dated 1961 from the Montecito Fire and Water districts that he believed proved the Siemens property had clearly been “intended to be a separate parcel used for development.”

Responding to neighbors’ warnings about project approval setting a precedent, Bierig said the Siemens matter was unique and could never be applied to a future land use case.

Jack Overall, who cast the commission’s single dissenting vote, agreed when he said in a phone interview the Siemens application had been a “close call with clearly distinct issues.”

“I hung my findings on the fact that the lot was created with development restrictions that were true then and, as far as I can tell, are still true now,” Overall said.

Neighbors tried to use the property’s building restrictions to prove that additional development would bring unwanted density to a modest neighborhood. They said Siemens would be building a home on the smallest parcel in the neighborhood, the only one smaller than an acre.

“There’s so many places to build a home in Montecito, why build one pinned between two homes in a small, residential neighborhood?” said Marcia Wolf, a Park Lane West resident.

Siemens’s land use attorney, Derek Westen, said neighbors were trying to deny his client’s rights as a property owner, especially when they made those same rights available to themselves.

“What is going on here is obvious: the neighbors here have enjoyed an empty lot for a long time, both to walk across it at will and enjoy the trees, but it doesn’t belong to them,” Westen said.

A number of wildlife specialists weighed in on the relocation of the trail, including Claude Garciacelay, a County park planner who said moving the trail along Park Lane West was “the best way to go.” Rosemary Thompson, the project biologist, said a relocation of the trail away from the creeks was necessary to prevent “more human disturbance.”

“The trail puts people, dogs and horses in a sensitive habitat and that causes disservice to both vegetation and wildlife,” Thompson said.

Still, the consensus among residents of Park Lane West was that last week’s decision would benefit one person at the expense of an entire neighborhood.

“I think it’s very easy to view this decision as a small one. For those of use who have lived in this neighborhood and have seen issues like this come up, this is a huge decision,” said Penny Kapousouz, a nearby resident. “This is a developer who will likely develop the property and flip it, and when he does that, the neighborhood will be left holding the bag.”