Carbajal Fumes over Delay of Montecito Appointments

During a ceremony highlighted by former Governor Pete Wilson’s remarks on the virtues of democracy and with politicians extolling the benefits of compromise over partisanship, three North County supervisors on Tuesday did something unexpected – they challenged a colleague’s appointments to government posts. By a vote of 3-2, the board delayed the ratification of three out of nine appointments made by Salud Carbajal, a move the frustrated First District supervisor blasted as “pure politics” and a decision one Montecito Planning Commissioner called “very unprecedented and very unusual.”

The three North County supervisors – Joni Gray, Joe Centeno and Brooks Firestone – had initially intended to delay all nine of Carbajal’s appointments, but they stopped at the nominations of three Montecito Planning Commissioners – Sue Burrows, Bob Bierig and Michael Phillips, the last two of whom were reappointments.

Tuesday’s decision delays the appointments until January 23, but Carbajal said it wouldn’t affect his slate of nominees.

“My appointment and reappointments will stay the same; I want to make that very clear,” Carbajal said.

Delays of this kind are a rarity in County government as these appointments are widely seen as a mundane practice partly meant to herald the beginning of the new year. The postponement of the commissioners is the first to ever occur in the Montecito Planning Commission’s five-year existence.

In an interview following the hearing, Third District Supervisor Firestone said his decision cast “no reflection on individuals or appointments,” but was designed to scrutinize the effectiveness of the Montecito Planning Commission, a five-member board that has come under recent fire for supposedly unfair treatment of applicants, specifically the hotelier Ty Warner. The decision also questioned the process by which Montecito Planning Commissioners are selected.

Firestone said the vote was triggered by two preceding events. The first was Warner’s November appeal to the supervisors regarding the repair and enhancement of his Biltmore seawall on Channel Drive. In that hearing, the supervisors quickly and unanimously gave Warner full approval. Firestone took it a step further by censuring Montecito Planning Commissioners for allowing an issue so “inconsequential” to reach his board’s agenda.

Firestone also took issue with the news late last November that Warner was selling the Miramar Hotel and was losing interest in doing business in Montecito, an announcement Firestone perceived as a stain on the Montecito Planning Commission’s record.

“When a major property owner is saying they’re fed up with the process, this is very disconcerting,” Firestone said. “I hope [Carbajal] will utilize this opportunity to meet with the planning commissioners and ask, ‘are we doing everything we can to be productive?’ Supervisor Carbajal above all has been the one talking about the County being consumer-friendly.”

Reacting to the decision, Carbajal accused North County supervisors of playing political games to exert their dominance over South County politicians.

“I was disappointed and I felt my colleagues were not being respectful of my constituents and me,” Carbajal said. “This was pure politics. This was North County supervisors saying, ‘we’re the majority and this is what we can do. I hope this isn’t the start of a truly divisive board, one that throws civility and working together out the door.”

Carbajal also questioned why supervisors needed to study how Montecito Planning Commissioners are chosen, a procedure he said was the same for every other County supervisor. The postponement of only his appointments, Carbajal said, creates a double standard.

“They need two weeks to reacquaint themselves with their own process? So be it,” Carbajal said. “But if it’s anything more than that, then we have a big problem.”

Meanwhile, Michael Phillips, a Montecito Planning Commissioner since the commission’s inception in 2002, defended his commission’s record, saying, “I think if you look at what the Montecito Planning Commission has done, I can’t imagine a developer or property owner saying they got nothing but excellent treatment.”

The vote Tuesday came moments after members of the newly formed Voices of Montecito questioned the Montecito Planning Commission’s close relationship with the Montecito Association and accusing County leaders of using the Association as a farm system for future appointments. Sue Burrows, Carbajal’s newest appointment to the Montecito Planning Commission, is a former Association director.

Speaking on behalf of Voices of Montecito President Michael Jaffe, Lee Luria asked supervisors Tuesday to “defer making a decision about new commissioners for the Montecito Planning Commission until these issues and many others have been dealt with in an open and democratic forum.”

In an interview hours after the hearing, Mary Belle Snow, a Voices of Montecito member, challenged Carbajal to fix what she termed “a broken system” and to take critics’ complaints more seriously.

“People are looking for leadership from Salud,” she said. “If he continues to walk the middle-of-the-road with his non-committal point of view…then we have a problem.”

Coral Casino Expects Fourth of July Reopening

The $65-million renovation of the Coral Casino may end with a bang – an Independence Day bang that is. The Channel Drive club, a perennial prime spot for viewing the fireworks display at the Harbor, is “right on target” to open on the Fourth of July, said Erinn Lynch, a public relations consultant for Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts.

The club has just undergone the demolition phase and it next faces the major bulk of construction – restoration of the ailing 70-year-old facilities. This week, crews plan to temporarily take down the casino’s famed faux light tower to make way for scheduled renovation work.

The second-story restaurant, the most noteworthy feature of the operation, won’t be finished until a few months after the anticipated reopening date of the club, Lynch said. The Coral Casino has been closed since October, 31, 2005.

The long-awaited rehabilitation has waged on despite a persisting set of lawsuits against the County-approved plans. Three weeks ago, the California Second District Court of Appeals denied a plea by the Coral Casino Preservation Committee that the renovation violated the Montecito Community Plan and state environmental regulations.

The decision, rendered by a panel of three justices, will be made official on January 18. Cynthia Ziegler, who spearheads the small cadre of club members involved in the suit, will then have 10 days to submit a petition to have the case considered by the California Supreme Court.

Ziegler’s attorney, Susan Brandt-Hawley, did not return phone calls from Journal staffers seeking comment.

Lawyers representing both Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts and the Coral Casino Members Committee said last week the chances of the case reaching the State Supreme Court were “remote.” One reason for this is that only 5% of all civic cases get picked up by the Supreme Court, according to Warner’s land use attorney, Richard Monk. Another reason is that the three Court of Appeals justices who turned down the last lawsuit did not publish their findings, a signal that the case did not set a legal precedent.

“It’s an uphill battle from here on out,” Monk said. “It’s a big deal to get the Supreme Court to accept a civil case.”

$5 Million Ortega Hill Project Nears Completion

The Ortega Hill auxiliary lane and bike project, conceived during the 1970s and approved in the late ‘90s, is almost finished, according to a representative of the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments. Kirsten Ayars, who is handling public relations for the project, said the $4.8-million effort to add an auxiliary lane to the northbound Highway 101 entrance at Evans Avenue and build a parallel bike lane could be done by the first week of February, if weather abides.

“Right now, it’s looking really good,” Ayars said.

The project is the fulfillment of a three-decade-old dream to improve the flow of traffic in that area and make roads safer by offering commuters a mixed menu of travel options. The bike lane segment, built along the highway on a gradual slope overlooking a panoramic swath of the coast, will make it possible for bicyclists to commute from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara.

Construction had been set to begin last January, but was delayed until March due to inclement weather. The project is funded by Measure D, the half-cent sales tax that expires in 2009.

School Refunds Bond, Earns Low Interest Rate

Montecito Union School has refunded an outstanding general obligation bond, a move administrators said would save the district’s property owners nearly $300,000. The refunded bonds, totaling $4.5 million, were authorized by 78% of voters in November of 1997 and were used to build new classrooms, modernize and upgrade outdated school facilities and improve playgrounds.

The average interest cost of that investment, at the time, was about 4.87%. The average interest rate cost for the new bonds issued last month was 4.079%, a difference that will reportedly save property owners $286,000.

“We felt as stewards of tax dollars, it was the right thing to do,” said School Superintendent Dick Douglas. “The passage of time and a lower interest rate environment provided the opportunity to refund the old bonds.”

The refinancing of the bonds was authorized by the Montecito Union School Board at a November meeting, when trustees anticipated savings to property owners would be at a minimum of $150,000.

“We’re just thrilled to learn that we saved taxpayers almost twice that,” said Dr. Bob Nagy, a board member.