Sinking in a County Planning Quagmire

I took the summer off. I always do. I go to Maine and live on the coast where I fish striped bass almost everyday and interact with some of the most colorful and steadfast people I have ever met. If the Maine coast had Montecito's weather, it would be the most valuable real estate in the world.

And now I'm back trying to come to grips with planning and private property in Santa Barbara County and must admit to a certain amount of sadness. Last spring I bought an acre on Ortega Ridge in the Summerland Overlay. My wife and I are planning to downsize our lush 3.4-acre property in Riven Rock to a 1-acre parcel with a smaller house. Our first child is off to college and our second leaves next year and we decided we wanted a home on one level with less maintenance and in a very different architectural style. We’re switching from a Cape Cod style home (which my wife designed with local architect Jock Sewall, and which has been featured in numerous magazines), to a modern pre-fab house built by Marmol Radziner, distinguished modern architect from Santa Monica. We were particularly pleased that the house met or exceeded all of the county's "green" standards, which we were told would help expedite the planning process. We received positive reactions from planners and the Summerland community, our neighbors. Everyone agreed we were compatible, green, and within guidelines.

Then reality set in.

I wrote a column with the help of County Planning and Development director John Baker not too long ago, outlining the planning process. I can tell you now that any hope of finding my way through that process without professional help was illusory. Despite the widespread support, it very quickly became obscure, filled with catch 22s, and became very expensive. We were forced to hire a professional planner ($11,000, so far); a lawyer ($4,500, so far) and the County Planning Department has billed me about $5,800, so far. And for all that, we are only slightly better off than nowhere!

There are two issues:

1) We have fallen afoul of some technical requirements of the Summerland Community Plan (not their fault) that simply don’t make any sense when applied to this unique project, the likes of which was never contemplated when the Plan was written.

2) We, the voters, have created a process that is arcane, confusing, dilatory, and in some cases downright nonsensical. Nobody in his right mind could dream up a bureaucratic mess like the planning process we have created for ourselves. I thought we lived in a society that worshipped local control. I thought we wanted big brother out of our lives. I thought Americans worshipped common sense!

I understand the need for community standards, but there's a difference between protecting the intent of those standards and slavishly applying every technical letter of the law. Unfortunately, our community plans do not allow any wiggle room. Everything has to fit the same mold. In my little community in Maine, the selectmen get together with applicants and settle the issues – as neighbors – in one or two meetings, with no professional planners on either side. And South Bristol, Maine is as beautiful and true to its historic roots as anywhere in the world, including Montecito.

So why can't we do that here? Is it just that there are too many of us? Have we simply lost our commitment to consensus? I am reminded of Wordsworth's well-known words: "The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers." Our power is in our community. My kids lost the best five years of their lives at the Coral Casino because our community didn't find a way to say “enough!.” Our community lost Ty Warner’s build-out of the Miramar because we didn't say “enough!” We cost the Music Academy of the West $2.5 million in planning and re-design fees because we wouldn't say “enough!” Will we chase new Miramar owner Rick Caruso out of town because we can't say "enough!"?

So I offer this partial/possible solution: Let’s give our County Planning Commission the latitude and authority to occasionally make decisions based on “common sense and good reason.” There are issues that come up all the time that could be solved quickly, inexpensively, and to most people’s satisfaction, if only planning authorities had the authority to make the necessary findings and/or decisions. This authority would give planners and applicants a sensible way to deal with issues that can’t be resolved by strict technical application of the General Community Plans in cases where such application makes no sense. And believe me, this happens all the time.