What Wild and Crazy Growth?

Upon leaving after three years with Montecito Journal, editor Guillaume Doane opined (“The State of Montecito” MJ # 13/21) that the semi-rural character of Montecito is in jeopardy because we can’t control growth and traffic. As the article points out, the “authorities” in Montecito are trying to use the Montecito Planning Commission and Board of Architectural review to control growth by enforcing compliance with the Montecito Community Plan and by issuing new guidelines and studies to plug perceived loopholes.

But what if they are wrong? What if they are operating under an assumption which appears to be true but actually isn’t?

All the thinking on planning in Montecito makes the underlying assumption that curbing size, bulk, and growth will help stave off the demise of our “semi-rural” character which is in jeopardy because of all the development. It is this conviction which fuels the planning wars we are all so familiar with and tired of.

Consider this: as Guillaume points out, about 10,000 people live in Montecito. When I moved here in 1978 there were about 9,700 people. Doesn’t sound like much growth to me.

Consider that our schools, public and private alike, are actually experiencing a decrease in enrollment. That suggests the average size of a Montecito household has gone down.

Consider the fact that Montecito allows growth of 19 homes per year but has, according to Guillaume, never achieved that limit. Also doesn’t sound like wild and crazy growth.

Is it possible that all the arguments about smaller, bulkless, compatible, scaled-down development bear absolutely no correlation to the expressed goals of the Community Plan? What if the semi-rural character of Montecito would be just as well served by a calm, egalitarian, objective, navigable and democratic process?

Remember, Guillaume’s research says that the increased traffic is not due to increased population but has some other “undetermined source,” perhaps construction workers or re-routed Hwy 101 traffic? Well, a little research on the Internet produced these results from the National Household Travel Survey from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation:

In 1969 the annual VMT (Vehicle Miles of Travel) per household was 12,412. By 2001 it had increased to 21,252!!! This statistic alone easily accounts for the increased traffic we’ve seen and the obvious conclusion is inescapable: increased traffic in Montecito has nothing to do with growth as defined by the Montecito Community Plan, especially since we haven’t really grown! This is great news, because if it’s true, then there may be no reason to continue our no/slow growth mutations to the existing community plan.

It looks as though there is a compelling argument that the semi-rural character of Montecito may be more effectively preserved by applying a rational, egalitarian, objective, and democratic planning program in Montecito, as opposed to the difficult and frequently subjective process now in place. It may sound blasphemous, but a rational study of the facts suggests it just may be true.

It is worth testing underlying assumptions, and the fragility of our underlying assumptions in Montecito raises questions about the rabid, protectionist, low-growth philosophy we’ve implemented with, apparently, very little correlation to the desired results.

Claire Gottsdanker, current Montecito Planning Commissioner and longtime activist in the Montecito planning world, was quoted in Guillaume’s article as having said, “As long as we have a strong economy, the people of Montecito better get used to the impacts. Right now, there is nothing that is going to stop that.” But the data suggests that Claire’s underlying assumptions – there are impacts and our planning process is somewhat successful in managing them – are not true at all, and to the extend they are, they are the result of statistical trends over which our Community Plan has no control.