Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should

One of the great pleasures of Montecito is walking along the lanes, having just a peek of beautiful homes and gardens and enjoying the lovely vistas of the mountains and ocean. Such meanderings are, however, becoming hazardous and stressful as legions of construction workers, trucks, equipment, gardeners and service personnel inundate the community to re-construct and then care for houses expanding everywhere throughout Montecito and its environs.

The crush and din of this activity highlights the inherent clash between individual private property rights on the one hand and community well-being and the preservation of the scale, harmony and environment of the community, on the other.

Balancing the tensions between individual rights and those of the community is always difficult but it is the ability to honor those rights and duties that will determine preservation of the few remaining semi-rural communities such as this one.

While ownership of private property is a cherished constitutional right in this country, like most rights it is not completely unfettered. Nearly all local communities have established rules that limit some property uses for the greater good. In Montecito’s case, there’s zoning and land use regulations that affect types and degree of development and architectural review boards that affect design, aesthetics and neighborhood impacts. Members of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review and Montecito Planning Commission, volunteers all, fulfill these valuable, time-consuming functions.

In addition to these bureaucratic restraints, communities such as Montecito are also greatly dependent upon each individual citizen’s self-imposed restraint in the way their property is used and developed. It is through this self-restraint that places such as Montecito come to be, are coveted and endure. While such self-restraint is purely voluntary and given in consideration of one’s community and neighbors, it is essential to insure the long-term preservation of the character and quality of life of the community.

While the rest of the real estate market has hit a relative lull, Montecito flourishes. This, however, can bring its own costs. As more real estate changes hands and the price becomes more dear, the amount of self-restraint essential to preserving Montecito’s bucolic character seems to get lost.

Take, for example, a recent Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR) hearing, where a number of projects submitted for preliminary review showed just how property owners fail to exercise individual restraint. In one instance, a property owner’s architect arrived with a design for a small lot on a narrow lane that exceeded the allowed regulation on ratio of square footage of floor area to total square footage of lot size by 43%. The design, while showing great possibilities, dwarfed the lot and all properties around it. This was no doubt one of many applications the MBAR sees where the property owner overreaches in the initial design, in the hope of eventually obtaining approval for a large house on a small lot. Thankfully, the MBAR members sent the designer and owner back to the drawing board, with many constructive comments on what was good about the project, while also demanding an appropriate reduction in size in conformity with code requirements and neighborhood character.

Even with approval of half of what such property owners set out to accomplish, we see enormous houses rising out of the landscape everywhere around us, often in conflict with the natural setting and unscreened by adequate landscape elements. Endless legions of construction workers, trucks and equipment fill the roads and lanes daily, replaced by equal numbers of gardeners, maids and service personnel when the homes are complete. Ironically, the growing concern about the effect of man’s carbon footprint on Earth seems to be lost on those requesting and approving these developments.

This grand expansion puts the respect for private property rights on a direct collision course with the desire to preserve what is so wonderful about the Montecito of old. While change isn’t always bad, one longs for the mystery of the house hidden behind the hedge, the return of Mrs. Bacon’s lovely little lake before the dancing fountains of Bellagio appeared, for the tangle of butterfly-filled hedgerows hanging over Channel Drive, for the sight of children pedaling off to school on their own without fearing for their safety.

What one most longs for is that element of individual restraint that leads a property owner to honor the beauty, scale and tradition of a beautiful old community like this before all else.