THE STATE OF MONTECITO

A Comparative Look at the Montecito of Today Versus the One of Five Years Ago

Are you, as a Montecito resident, better off now than you were five years ago? And why five years, and not 10, or 20? The main reason is that five years ago brought about the most transformative change in recent Montecito history: The formation of the Montecito Planning Commission and the Board of Architectural Review.

These two bodies of unpaid volunteers are the big bosses of land use in Montecito. The architectural review board acts as a sort of consigliere to the commission on the design, size, bulk, scale and neighborhood compatibility of proposed buildings, while the commission examines and decides on projects and determines land use policy.

In Montecito, land use is by far the most important issue because it drives all other community aspects. The preservation and enhancement of this area’s physical layout is not only critical in determining its overall value, which in turn determines annual property taxes, but it’s also a helpful precursor for other issues – such as traffic, safety, education, fire protection, water and sanitary resources, the political climate and even crime.

The creation of the planning commission and the architectural review board was designed to give Montecito control of its destiny; perhaps more importantly, it was also supposed to thwart an incipient cityhood movement. Applicants would know that when they bring a project forward, it would be observed by a panel of people who live amongst them and understand the town’s values. The promise was: If one adhered to the guidelines, Montecito would retain its identity and quality of life.

But the establishment of these two agencies also transformed Montecito’s political landscape. Until 2002, when decisions on Montecito projects were made by the County Planning Commission, the Montecito Association played an enormous part in the land use “process.” A private homeowners organization, it was a consummate facilitator, studying and commenting on projects, hosting neighborhood forums and, eventually, acting as Montecito’s messenger to possible decision makers.

“When the Montecito Association spoke, just like E. F. Hutton, everybody listened,” said J’Amy Brown, during a recent conversation, who served as the Association’s president in 2004 and 2005.

Over the past five years, this central power has slowly changed and the Association is now in danger of losing its identity and influence, a trend that many of the organization’s leaders foresaw happening.

Today, much of Montecito’s future rests on the shoulders of two fledgling bodies that are entrusted with protecting $6.4 billion worth of property, representing nearly 12% of Santa Barbara County’s total land value.

Growth Management

The scarcity of available land and the low inventory of houses, coupled with the high desirability of the area, have catapulted Montecito into the ranks of one of the most expensive ZIP codes in the country. Last year, Forbes ranked 93108 the seventh most expensive in the country. Today, the median price of a home in Montecito is hovering over $2.8 million and rising, stubbornly defying the nationwide real estate cooldown of the past two years.

Montecito’s low housing inventory should be a credit to its Growth Management Ordinance that was issued in 1991 and allows the issuance of no more than 19 permits for new residential, market-rate units per year. The ordinance, which expires in 2010, strives to keep the growth rate at half a percent of the existing housing stock in Montecito in 1989. But the annual demand to build new homes has not even come close to the 19 maximum units (believe it or not, only 87 new residences have been completed since 1991). Land use and real estate experts attribute this to Montecito’s low availability of developable land.

So, if there’s little demand (or opportunity) to build new, market-rate houses, what’s the point of having a Growth Management Ordinance? One reason is to monitor increases in local traffic and circulation and the ordinance’s most recent progress report contained a somewhat bleak prediction: “Achieving a balance between transportation services and residential growth is not expected to occur within the next several years.”

In other words, traffic in Montecito is rising rapidly while the rate of new houses being built and overall population growth (approximately 10,000 today), stay low. How can this be? Well, just look at the number of projects being approved each year, not just the new single-family residences, but also all other development – from teardowns and rebuilds and touch-ups and restorations to standard remodels such as a new kitchen or bathroom. The number of projects approved in Montecito increases each year. Five years ago it was 291; last year it was 516. As of Monday, May 14, the number of applications this year for building permits in Montecito is already more than 400. Bottom line: Montecito is growing. And as Claire Gottsdanker, a Montecito Planning Commissioner, said wryly last week, “that’s not such a bad thing, unless of course you want the old Montecito.”

Though it is known that Montecito is growing – and changing – it is difficult to say how much. We know, for instance, that traffic counts have gone up and most major streets are reaching their average daily volume limits. But traffic engineers can’t keep track of what kind of vehicles are making the impacts. Is it a construction truck, a resident driving to Vons, the pool man or gardener heading for a Montecito estate, or is it a tourist searching for Oprah’s house? All we know so far is that every project approved produces an undetermined number of construction-related traffic trips. But the real facts are anecdotal.

Special Services

The Montecito Growth Management Ordinance’s most recent progress report also reviews health and safety considerations. Controlling the increase of traffic may have failed so far, the report says, but efforts to maintain fire protection and water resources has been resoundingly successful.

The Montecito Fire Protection District has maintained a ratio of that is far better than what national standards require, and has kept its emergency response times in Montecito to five minutes or better. With two stations, and a third one currently undergoing early planning stages, the district also far exceeds the National Fire Protection Association standard of one fire station per 10,000-11,000 people. The Montecito Fire District is well funded with an annual budget that exceeds $10 million, well equipped with a highly trained staff and well supported by a devoted organization of volunteers that bolster its services, the Montecito Emergency Response & Recovery Action Group, or MERRAG. In short, it’s the Cadillac of fire districts.

When the Growth Management Ordinance was first issued, the Central Coast had just come out of a devastating drought, a trying multi-year period that raised questions about water supplies. The ordinance was important at the time, especially when water availability was so uncertain. The Montecito Water District has since joined the voter-approved State Water Project, a deal that secured more reliable and consistent access to those resources, but forced the district to make enormous, long-term financial investments.

Plus, state water standards have become more stringent, forcing water districts to increase their rates. This puts a heavy burden on agriculture customers, the stewards of the majority of undeveloped land in Montecito. Farmers and ranchers have warned repeatedly that if they can’t get water at a discount rate, they won’t stay in business. To borrow an old line, if the farms can’t grow crops, they’ll grow houses instead.

Traffic

A good way to determine whether a place is semi-rural is to count its number of traffic lights. Montecito has two – both of them on San Ysidro Road. This is a definite sign that traffic volumes here are low, especially on side streets, which have some of the lowest daily counts on the South Coast.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that traffic in Montecito, not unlike everywhere else in the county, continues to increase, with many streets reaching their average daily thresholds. In 1992, the framers of the local land use constitution, the Montecito Community Plan, devised an imperfect traffic formula and attributed every street with volume limits. The thresholds were apparently underestimated.

A Montecito-wide traffic study last March revealed a “creep of intensification,” meaning that most major arteries had average daily traffic counts that were at least at 70% capacity. Some streets were higher than 90%, including portions of East Valley Road (91%) and Sheffield Drive (94%). The traffic figures are calculated as 24-hour averages, meaning that some streets reach far over 100% at certain parts of the day.

Traffic increases of this kind, County road engineers will tell you, means diminished level of road satisfaction among drivers, longer delays and an increased risk of collisions and injuries.

During a phone conversation last fall, Gary Smart, traffic operations supervisor for County Public Works, summed up the traffic situation like this: “It’s gone over what the Montecito community is comfortable with.”

This is critical information for Montecito as it relates to the ongoing debate about its quasi-bucolic character. Difficult problems will require difficult solutions, such as the installation of new stop signs and even new stop lights. Traffic queues will build, frustration among drivers will boil over and Montecito’s semi-rural nature will hang in the balance.

A microcosm of this issue is what’s happening at the elementary schools, where parents and administrators are working diligently with the region’s leaders on making main streets safer for students. About 15 years ago, kids bicycling to Montecito Union School was common practice; today it’s almost non-existent. Traffic rates on the school’s neighboring streets are simply too high for comfort. This is something parents hope to change, but it will involve making some tough choices.

For safer streets, kids need more room to roam. Doing this will require removal of road encroachments such as mailboxes, flowers and all the streetside plants that make Montecito what it is. On Sycamore Canyon Road, a state thoroughfare that is the main access route to Cold Spring School, any streetside walkway will have to be a handicap-accessible “sidewalk” to satisfy California law. Up until now, local preservationists have been successful in thwarting sidewalks, which they deem incompatible with Montecito’s character. But in the near future, people will be faced with this dilemma: Montecito’s pastoral pleasures versus the safety of its citizens.

Overcoming the Traffic Crunch

Any traffic expert at the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments, or SBCAG, will tell you that the trick to decongesting local roads is by decongesting the freeway. A test to this theory is just around the corner. The County is spending nearly $50 million in widening Highway 101 between Milpas Street and Hot Springs Road, a project that begins in early 2008. This will be followed by a much bigger investment of $150 million to widen a six-mile stretch of the highway from Carpinteria to the Ventura County line. One of the rationales of this is, of course, that making more space for cars on the freeway will remove cars from Montecito streets during peak traffic hours. Most importantly, the widening initiatives are in response to future traffic predictions that make today’s situation quite pale in comparison.

“Congestion is nothing compared to what we’re going to have five years from now,” Gregg Hart, public information coordinator for SBCAG, told me last fall. “The widening project is a great example of thinking about tomorrow.”

Yes, thinking about tomorrow is a good start, because four or five years from now, Montecito will really begin to absorb the effects of what’s happening today. Westmont College’s multi-hundred-million-dollar expansion could be underway, Cold Spring School could have enough money to perform its reported $14-million build-out, a restoration of the Montecito Country Club could be taking place and a total of 600 to 700 projects could be approved each year, all of which could lead to inordinate amounts of construction traffic on top of what’s already on the road.

County decision makers even have a name for this impending outcome: the “perfect storm,” an unpreventable convergence of events that together produce a large-scale and untenable problem.

Crime

Montecito’s crime rate is, unsurprisingly, one of the lowest in the county and also one of the lowest in the United States. This is especially true for violent crimes – homicides, armed robberies, rapes and assaults. Not a single murder or manslaughter case has been recorded in Montecito in the last five years, with only four forcible rape reports, seven robberies and 139 assaults.

The crimes that do happen with much more frequency are non-violent – crimes against property rather than against people. In the last five years, more than 86% of the 1,144 total crimes reported were non-violent. Especially prevalent were thefts (an average of 124 in the last five years), which law enforcers admitted were some of the most difficult to prevent and solve.

“In Montecito, with beautiful homes and beautiful landscape, it’s difficult [for sheriff’s patrols] to spot a potential residential burglary,” Lieutenant Darin Fotheringham, of Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, said during a crime forum last September. “We need everyone’s eyes to find those crime areas that need our attention. When we identify the problem and get public input, we can easily abate crime volumes.”

Last fall, County Sheriff’s deputies declared there had been a noticeable increase in graffiti during the past year and a half. Deputies tend to see this as a bellwether for more serious crime to come – graffiti as the gateway to more egregious offenses, such as burglaries and assaults.

“When it is seen, it really makes the persons feel uncomfortable about the safety of the community they live in,” Fotheringham said. “The thing we’ve learned about graffiti is that the quicker it’s cleaned up, the safer a community is and it is proven to prevent crime also.”

In graffiti, there’s inevitably also a land use connection. As First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal told me last fall, the immediate purge of these markings is crucial because graffiti “brings down the aesthetic value of this community” and degrades the “collective psyche of our quality of life.”

Five Years from Now

The most reliable predictions indicate that traffic will continue to rise for decades to come. But what the estimates don’t tell you is what kind of impact that will have on Montecito. At what point does traffic get so bad that safety is compromised, the quality of life undermined and the desirability of Montecito suffers?

By 2012, Highway 101 widening will still be underway and ostensibly a year away from completion, at which point we might know how much freeway traffic is affecting local roads. Of equal importance will be whether the number of approved projects in Montecito continues to rise each year, a factor that so far seems to be guided by the number of people who can afford to buy here and remodel their home.

“As long as we have a strong economy, the people of Montecito better get used to the impacts,” says Claire Gottsdanker. “Right now, there is nothing that is going to stop that.”

Yes, other than encouraging people to exercise self-restraint, there exists no mechanism that controls when an applicant begins a project and when he finishes it. The County has no authority to tell an applicant, “Well, your project meets all of the appropriate guidelines and regulations, but you’ll have to wait a little while to begin construction because traffic in your neighborhood is pretty intense.”

But a situation where the semi-rural character of a closely knit community is at stake opens the door to solutions with dangerous legal and political implications. As Michael Phillips, a Montecito Planning Commissioner, put it to me last week, “The community has to wonder, how close do we micromanage in the name of preservation and this so-called semi-rural character? But if we don’t do anything, then we’re certainly at risk.”

Five years of institutional memory shows that efforts to stem growth have gone largely unfulfilled. But for the past several months, a Montecito subcommittee that includes the planning commission and architectural review board has been hard at work to implement changes that will help members make better and more informed decisions. Among the additions will be a new database of square footages for every building in Montecito so leaders can monitor growth and respond accordingly.

For now, Montecito controls its own destiny.