Officials Take Cautious First Steps on Road to Traffic Safety

Sycamore Canyon to Get Traffic Volume Count, Possible Removal of Encroachments

Last Friday, the cars whizzed by on Sycamore Canyon Road with almost unfailing syncopation. As they flashed by during the day’s peak hour of traffic, a group of about 15 people hugged the road shoulder with curious trepidation, watching the vehicles blow by leaving only drafts of warm air in their wake.

For many of these onlookers, this provided an up-close introduction to the pedestrian situation on Sycamore Canyon Road, a major Montecito thoroughfare that is used to get to school by 162 Cold Spring students, 84% of the enrollment. For parents, Friday’s visit was a grim reminder of how unsafe the road is for kids walking or bicycling.

“You take your life in your hands riding your bike on this road,” said Steve Kruft, a Cold Spring parent and a member of the school’s Safe Routes committee.

Sycamore Canyon Road, also known as Highway 192, is in many ways Montecito’s speedway. The speed limit says 35 miles per hour, but tradition and the extensive width of the pavement have given motorists reason to exceed that with relative consistency.

A stop sign was installed last summer at the corner of Cold Spring Road, next to the school, but that’s only been effective insofar as providing a pause to the zooming. Law enforcement officials parked near the sign at the fire station hand out speeding tickets regularly.

Cold Spring parents say it’s going to take a lot more for them to feel comfortable letting their kids take their bikes or feet to school. So far government officials seem willing to help.

On the Road

For Sycamore Canyon Road to be safe, parents agree the first thing that needs to happen is making room for kids to walk or bike.

“All we’re asking for is making some use of the public roadway to put in an inconspicuous, rural pathway,” said Tracey Willfong-Singh, who is chair of Cold Spring’s Safe Routes to School committee.

Willfong-Singh was among more than a dozen people last Friday who toured the Sycamore Canyon area in a two-hour meeting that hosted parents, Cold Spring administrators, high-ranking Caltrans officials, members of the County First District office and representatives of the Montecito Association. Because Sycamore Canyon is a state road bordered by County residents, any solutions will require multi-agency collaboration.

“Whatever we do here is going to have to be a partnership,” said Rich Krumholz, the district director of Caltrans. “We are really to going to have to engage the community.”

Within the next month, Caltrans engineers will be performing peak-hour traffic studies to determine whether vehicle and pedestrian volumes are high enough to warrant changes, such as installing additional stop signs.

To make more room for safe passage, Caltrans crews will also be coming out to trim vegetation on Sycamore Canyon Road. It’s an exercise that would seem “pretty straightforward,” said Steve Price, the deputy district director of Caltrans, but will “require cooperation from residents” who are affected.

In recent months, County Public Works crews have taken initial steps to cut down overhanging branches on the school’s neighboring streets, including Barker Pass Road, and they plan to do more in the future.

Still, the number one challenge, officials concur, will be making room on the edge of Sycamore Canyon for people walking or bicycling by removing road encroachments such as plants and even mailboxes. Such endeavors can come with a huge price, not just in dollars, but also politically and legally.

Governments have the authority to forcibly remove encroachments from the public roadway, up to three feet from the edge of the pavement, but history has shown residents to be tenacious in drawing their own lines.

“I need to have strong support from everybody when we start red-tagging everybody’s road encroachments,” Krumholz said.

Added Price, “We don’t want to lose the war of public opinion.”

The price tag for any work on Sycamore Canyon is so far unknown. Officials plan on doing a feasibility study to determine the costs. Funding any work will likely come from the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, which handles regional transportation improvements, unlike Caltrans, whose responsibility is repairs and maintenance.

Caltrans officials said they could free up some discretionary money from the state agency’s Cleaning Up the Roadside Environment program, otherwise known as CURE. County transportation officials are also working on getting some funding from state and federal Safe Routes to School programs, in addition to grants of up to $1 million. The district’s success rate for receiving grants is between 30% and 40%, according to County officials.

In coming weeks, Cold Spring parents plan on mailing out flyers to select Sycamore Canyon residents informing them of their wishes to clear out some shoulder space for pedestrians and bikers. Involved parties generally agree that the emphasis of the message should be to promote child safety without ruining aesthetics.

Krumholz said parents should approach residents on only a certain stretch of Sycamore Canyon, rather than the entire road.

“If we bite off more than we can chew, then we’ll lose,” he said.

In many ways, Friday’s meeting brought one of Montecito’s trickiest challenges to the forefront: Finding a solution to a traffic problem without jeopardizing the town’s so-called “semi-rural character.” Zoning guidelines frown against traditional sidewalks in favor of rural pathways, a rule that community preservationists have protected with undeniable pride.

But Krumholz indicated last week that if the main objective was child safety, Montecito should “revisit” its sidewalk policies, a comment that underscored how the views of state agencies can sometimes conflict with small town traditions.

Shortly before Friday’s site visit came to a close, officials pointed out how certain sections of state roads can be turned over to County governments. The observation was responded with immediate hesitation.

Said First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who attended the meeting, “It’s possible, but it’s complicated.”

Association Puts Voices Member on Board

In a surprising turn of events, the Montecito Association on Tuesday elected to its Board of Directors J.W. Colin, one of the leading members of the Voices of Montecito, a group that has clashed with the Association for the better part of the last year.

Colin, a retired engineer, will serve out the eight remaining months of a seat left open by the unexplained resignation of Ralph Baxter on May 5.

“He’s an independent thinker and he has some interesting ideas,” said Association President Bill Palladini of Colin. “He will be an excellent addition to the board.”

A First District County Arts Commissioner for the past six years, Colin has a modest level of local experience in public service and a more extensive résumé in the private sector. He was a registered professional engineer in Texas and during the mid-‘60s he worked at Information Systems Inc., a firm for which he was in charge of all planning and layout of “Snowmass-at-Aspen.”

Colin also worked as a production engineer with IBM and as a marketing manager for Texas Instruments.

In Colin, the homeowners group inherits one of the leading members of a property rights-minded coalition that during the Association’s December 2006 election lobbied unsuccessfully to have one of its members on the Board of Directors.

In 2006, Voices of Montecito and the Association had strong disagreements as it related to property rights, especially in terms of interpreting and applying land use policies.

Refinanced Bond Saves Taxpayers $200,000

Cold Spring School has refunded an outstanding general obligation bond, a move the school’s superintendent said would save the district’s property owners more than $200,000. The refunded bond, totaling $2.9 million, was authorized by 79% of voters in November of 1996 and was used to build six new classrooms and update the school’s auditorium.

The average interest cost of that investment, at the time, was about 5.414%. The average interest rate cost for the new bonds issued last month was 4.153%, a difference that will reportedly save property taxpayers in excess of $200,000.

In February, the Cold Spring School Board authorized the issuance and sale of refunding bonds and the refinancing was completed on May 3. School officials said the savings would be reflected in taxpayers’ future property tax payments.

“Current rates for school district bonds are at an all-time low,” said Dr. Bryan McCabe, Cold Spring’s superintendent and principal. “Our board wanted to make sure our taxpayers benefited from this drop in rates.”

Westmont College Graduation

Last Saturday, nearly 5,000 people were in attendance for the Westmont College commencement ceremonies that saw the graduation of 356 students, 170 with honors (above).

In itself, the graduation ceremony was also a sendoff to Dr. David K. Winter (left in left photo), the chancellor and interim president who ended his brilliant career at Westmont by turning his leadership over to president designate Gayle Beebe, whose presidency begins officially on July 1.