MPC Gives Hurst House the Go-ahead

Verdict Reveals Opposing Views on Property Rights

In a pivotal decision that was hailed by property rights advocates, the Montecito Planning Commission last Wednesday approved the construction of an 8,000-square-foot home with a 3,000-square-foot basement on a 3.5 acre Park Lane property. The split vote of 3-2 also approved ancillary structures such as two detached garages and a separate guest house, all totaling an additional 2,500 square feet.

Approvals of this kind are normally routine exercises, but this decision was important because decision makers had worried the development application was “pushing all the envelopes” in size, appearance and neighborhood compatibility. Furthermore, the narrow verdict presented the first hints of an ideological split between members of a commission in its newest incarnation.

By supporting the construction, the commission told Park Lane residents Hank and Michelle Hurst that while the replacement of their existing 3,000-square-foot house tests the limits of neighborhood compatibility, the application is still within zoning guidelines.

“I don’t how you deny an applicant who is within the size and height limitations for that neighborhood,” said Commissioner Michael Phillips. “I think we have in front of us the project we have, not the project we’d like to have.”

In an opinion column published three weeks ago in the Journal, Michael Jaffe, president of the property rights-minded Voices of Montecito, called on County leaders to support the Hurst application because it met the zoning restrictions. During a phone conversation last week, Jaffe called the commission’s decision a step in the right direction.

“I’m pleased that three of the commissioners felt it appropriate to approve a project that has met the guidelines,” he said. “This is the standard we support.”

A coalition of neighbors concerned about the size and design of the Hursts’ home pooled their opposition and hired the local law firm of Price, Postel & Parma. Their attorney, Susan Basham, who likened the design of the home to a “Palladian Italian palace,” cited notes from a March 26 Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) meeting in which members had doubts about the home’s compatibility. Member Ray Ketzel was “still concerned with massing of the house” while Marsha Zilles said the “plate heights are still too high.”

“You can read the tea leaves all you want,” Basham said. “But the reality is that the MBAR has had real concerns about the size and design of the house since the very beginning.”

Commissioner Jack Overall, who opposed the project, said construction would create significant water drainage problems and would cause a “quantum jump of runoff.”

Last Wednesday’s hearing brought the Hursts to their seventh public meeting – five before the MBAR and twice in front of the planning commission – for a project that in its lengthy 14-month journey has taken on multiple shapes and variations. Decision makers have admitted the evolution of the application made the project complicated, but the eventual outcome was critical in highlighting critical differences in how commissioners adopt their findings.

Commissioner Claire Gottsdanker was hesitant to support the project because she had a “problem with site design” and was bothered that the “MBAR had not given the right direction for this project.”

Tensions mounted when Phillips questioned whether addressing architectural components of the project was within Gottsdanker’s purview and said, “I’m wondering whether you’re wearing the right hat.”

Noticeably upset, Gottsdanker fired back: “I don’t know how to be a planning commissioner given that I served on the MBAR. I don’t know how I can be a planning commissioner when I wrote the friggin’ architectural guidelines.”

Moments after the approval, Phillips said he noticed a clear ideological split in the commission, though he thought it was “difficult to articulate.” He admitted the differences came down to property rights issues.

Lawsuit Accuses County of Disregarding Environmental Impacts

As expected, the battle to expand Westmont College will go through a court of law. Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion, the coalition of Montecito residents that has led a vigorous opposition against Westmont College’s development plans, filed a lawsuit last Thursday asserting that the County was wrong in approving more than 370,000 square feet of construction.

In its approval of the buildout, the County disregarded local and state zoning codes and made incorrect assumptions about how much the college is allowed to build, the lawsuit said.

By more than doubling the square footage of campus facilities, the project “will have significant environmental impacts” on wildlife, soil erosion, traffic, parking, fire protection, air quality and aesthetics, according to the 19-page lawsuit.

“If this goes through, the impact to the surrounding community would be devastating,” said the coalition’s attorney, Barry Cappello, managing partner at the law firm Cappello & Noël.

The lawsuit, signed by Pam Lopker, the CEO of the software company QAD and one of the founders of the coalition, also takes issue with the project’s supplemental environmental impact report, or SEIR, by contending that the County made incorrect calculations about construction impacts and understated the “scope” of future development.

The Westmont Masterplan update would be the culmination of more than five years of work to fulfill the college’s vision by adding hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of new facilities to the 111-acre, wooded campus. This includes a $150-million first phase of construction that accounts for 150,000 square feet of buildings – Adams Center, Winter Hall, chapel/auditorium, a dormitory, the dining commons addition and the observatory.

The County Board of Supervisors approved the project on February 27 following appeals of unanimous approvals made by the Montecito Planning Commission and the Montecito Board of Architectural Review.

Responding to the lawsuit by telephone, Cliff Lundberg, Westmont’s executive vice president, said the opposition’s “contentions are without merit” and that its assertions that the college was not in compliance with its conditional use permit were “completely unfounded.” He said the coalition’s objections would be a “tremendous waste of money” to both the County and the school.

“The bottom line is that we were hoping these individuals would respect the unanimous approval by local decision makers,” Lundberg said. “We are obviously disappointed and frustrated that they chose to ignore the decisions of these governing bodies and allow this to continue.”

While the lawsuit was filed against the County, Lundberg said the school would appoint “several lawyers” to defend the County. He neglected to identify those attorneys by name. Lundberg couldn’t predict when the suit would go to trial, but he expected the opposition to take as long as possible.

“They’ve shown that they’re prone to delay tactics,” he said, “and we expect to see more of those.”

Cappello resisted Lundberg’s analysis as “a nice little spin” and said if Westmont had gotten the project right to begin with, the school wouldn’t be facing these delays. Besides, he added, “the case will be heard and decided long before construction even begins.”

The Westmont College expansion, the single largest development proposal in the history of Montecito, pits a well-funded liberal arts school versus one of the county’s foremost litigators representing an implacable coalition of residents that claims to have support from 750 neighbors.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Cappello said he might submit the coalition’s petition of 750 signatures from campus neighbors who oppose the project into administrative court record. Laura Collector, one of the core members in the opposition, said the petition was created “several years ago” and only included residents who would be “personally affected by the project.”

The petition, Cappello said, makes a strong case for how much construction will affect Westmont’s neighbors.

“You can’t tell me they need the facilities they have on their campus plus a project that would be the size of four County courthouses without adding environmental impacts,” Cappello said.

For its part, the college has had sizable financial backing for the project. As of June 2006, Westmont’s endowment was $65 million, up from $9.5 million in 1997. Last October, the school received an anonymous $75-million gift from a Montecito couple who claimed they are not college alumni. That donation brought Westmont’s fundraising drive for the project’s first phase to more than $115 million.

Cappello said the lawsuit could be heard within six months. Despite charges that opponents were stalling, Collector said she’d like the matter resolved as soon possible because she believes the facts are on her group’s side.

“I think our case has been very strong the whole time,” she said. “I just think that the County was biased in their decision. I don’t know why they did what they did, but they made many mistakes. That’s why we had no choice but to take this to court.”

Tedesco: We’ve Learned from Mistakes

As the Montecito Association strives to restructure its fractured Land Use Committee, one of the organization’s top officials admitted last week that the homeowners group made critical mistakes in 2006 that led to questions about its integrity. Ted Tedesco, who is chairman of the Association’s new Land Use Steering Committee, said the committee’s involvement in land use issues last year had been “more disruptive and caused a lot more anxiety” than necessary.

During a one-on-one interview with Journal staff, Tedesco said the Land Use Committee studied too many issues and made too many decisions that left the Association’s Board of Directors, the body to which Land Use members make recommendations, “excluded from the land use process.”

Tedesco said Land Use members were getting active in issues that were perhaps not too “relevant” or “significant” to the Association or its membership of 1,100 households.

“Simply too many issues were drawing us in,” Tedesco said. “If people were angry over a telephone pole, we’d get involved.”

But the problem, Tedesco, wasn’t just about what issues were being studied, it was equally about the issues that weren’t. This included last summer’s Rob Lowe dispute, in which the Montecito actor caused neighborhood-wide consternation over the size of a house he wanted to build on Picacho Lane. The Association didn’t weigh in on that case, leading the Land Use Committee’s chair at the time, Susan Keller, to say “it was a loss for us not to testify.” Following the Rob Lowe matter, the Association instituted a policy requiring at least one Land Use member to attend monthly Montecito Planning Commission hearings, a rule that has been followed inconsistently since its inception last July.

More recently, the Association did not make determinations on Park Lane resident Hank Hurst’s application for a new residence or developer Wayne Siemens’s bid for a lot split, two cases that faced heavy opposition from neighbors. Tedesco acknowledged the Association should have studied and made recommendations on those issues. In the case of the Siemens lot split, he said the organization didn’t get the County staff report in time to make a determination, even though the report could have been available in advance.

“We had talked about it, but we didn’t have enough information,” he said. “Something dropped through the cracks.”

In the future, Tedesco said the Land Use Steering Committee will slow down the Montecito Association process “to involve the Board of Directors to a greater extent than ever before” and to encourage more participation. The four-member committee composed of Ralph Baxter, Dick Shaikewitz, Barry Siegel and Tedesco will keep land use consultant Victoria Greene on staff and will continue to make recommendations to Association directors following meetings on the first Monday of every month.

The committee drafted a seven-point list of criteria that will serve as a guide for members on what land use issues warrant study, including whether a project conflicts with policies of the Montecito Community Plan or whether a project sets a precedent.

“It’s a matter of use of resources,” Tedesco said. “We can’t be everything to everyone.”

Tedesco: We’ve Learned from Mistakes

As the Montecito Association strives to restructure its fractured Land Use Committee, one of the organization’s top officials admitted last week that the homeowners group made critical mistakes in 2006 that led to questions about its integrity. Ted Tedesco, who is chairman of the Association’s new Land Use Steering Committee, said the committee’s involvement in land use issues last year had been “more disruptive and caused a lot more anxiety” than necessary.

During a one-on-one interview with Journal staff, Tedesco said the Land Use Committee studied too many issues and made too many decisions that left the Association’s Board of Directors, the body to which Land Use members make recommendations, “excluded from the land use process.”

Tedesco said Land Use members were getting active in issues that were perhaps not too “relevant” or “significant” to the Association or its membership of 1,100 households.

“Simply too many issues were drawing us in,” Tedesco said. “If people were angry over a telephone pole, we’d get involved.”

But the problem, Tedesco, wasn’t just about what issues were being studied, it was equally about the issues that weren’t. This included last summer’s Rob Lowe dispute, in which the Montecito actor caused neighborhood-wide consternation over the size of a house he wanted to build on Picacho Lane. The Association didn’t weigh in on that case, leading the Land Use Committee’s chair at the time, Susan Keller, to say “it was a loss for us not to testify.” Following the Rob Lowe matter, the Association instituted a policy requiring at least one Land Use member to attend monthly Montecito Planning Commission hearings, a rule that has been followed inconsistently since its inception last July.

More recently, the Association did not make determinations on Park Lane resident Hank Hurst’s application for a new residence or developer Wayne Siemens’s bid for a lot split, two cases that faced heavy opposition from neighbors. Tedesco acknowledged the Association should have studied and made recommendations on those issues. In the case of the Siemens lot split, he said the organization didn’t get the County staff report in time to make a determination, even though the report could have been available in advance.

“We had talked about it, but we didn’t have enough information,” he said. “Something dropped through the cracks.”

In the future, Tedesco said the Land Use Steering Committee will slow down the Montecito Association process “to involve the Board of Directors to a greater extent than ever before” and to encourage more participation. The four-member committee composed of Ralph Baxter, Dick Shaikewitz, Barry Siegel and Tedesco will keep land use consultant Victoria Greene on staff and will continue to make recommendations to Association directors following meetings on the first Monday of every month.

The committee drafted a seven-point list of criteria that will serve as a guide for members on what land use issues warrant study, including whether a project conflicts with policies of the Montecito Community Plan or whether a project sets a precedent.

“It’s a matter of use of resources,” Tedesco said. “We can’t be everything to everyone.”