Westmont Expansion Gains Approval

Neighbors Name Top Litigator as They Seek Legal Action

The County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday signed off on the much-debated Westmont College expansion, a unanimous decision that effectively ignores the threat of legal action that loomed largely over the day’s discussions.

By a vote of 4-0, the supervisors followed a recommendation from County staff that supports an approval of the 350,000-square-foot project and rejects appeals made by the Christian college’s neighbors. Fourth District Supervisor Joni Gray left the hearing early and did not participate in the decision.

“I’m convinced that this is a commendable and compatible project for the future,” said Third District Supervisor Brooks Firestone, the board’s chair.

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal complimented Westmont on working “in good faith to find the best compromise.” His second district colleague, Janet Wolf, said she was impressed that even in doubling its square footage of building space, Westmont is still keeping 80% of its 111-acre campus undeveloped.

Tuesday’s decision validates the Montecito Planning Commission’s approval of the project last fall, but it left unresolved an appeal the college made regarding two conditions of that approval. Supervisors will address those contentions as soon as February 20.

Reached after the hearing, Ron Cronk, Westmont’s senior advisor, said he was “very pleased” with the outcome and he commended supervisors on upholding a Montecito Planning Commission hearing process that took 10 meetings and more than 60 hours of discussion.

“In the end, neighbors provided no factual basis or legally reliable information,” Cronk said.

For their part, opponents of the project left the Supervisors Hearing Room disappointed, but they quickly made clear they would sue the County over what they claimed were faulty legal findings. Laura Collector, a main member of the Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion, said her group would keep Derek Westen as its land use attorney, but would add to the legal team Barry Cappello, the power litigator whose clients include News-Press owner Wendy McCaw.

Collector said the supervisors’ approval “rests on assumptions that are legally incorrect,” such as Westmont being entitled to all that square footage. The project’s environmental impact report, or EIR, was “fatally flawed,” Collector said, and didn’t adequately account for construction-related effects, including noise and traffic.

Collector finds specific fault with County legal counsel, whom she claims steered decision makers toward an approval and “never questioned their conclusions.”

“They’ve always believed that Westmont had greater rights to build what they want than we believe,” she said. “All the County is doing is staying the course. County staff should be protecting the interests of every citizen and not just one applicant.”

Tuesday’s proceedings were decided in about five hours after a series of presentations and a procession of speakers. Among those speakers was Hollywood producer Ivan Reitman, a nearby resident of the college who has been a sharp critic of the project, though never public until Tuesday.

As discussions labored forward and the neighbors’ threat of litigation emerged, Carbajal said he never wavered in his decision. He said attorneys convinced him that the County could present a strong defense in a trial.

In two weeks, the supervisors will address the college’s appeal, which contends that the Montecito Planning Commission had no legal basis to make traffic restrictions on Cold Spring Road, the primary roadway to the school. Commissioners set the limit at 3,355 trips instead of the proposed 3,500. Cronk said the restriction was “unnecessary and without direct connection” to the environmental impact report.

Westmont officials also take issue with a condition that forces students to put a decal on their car if they don’t have a parking permit. The condition is meant to track how many students are parking off-campus, but school administrators said they’ve only counted an average of four instances per semester where kids have parked in the off-campus neighborhood.

Cronk said Westmont would propose an alternative to the decal concept that calls on the college to be more proactive about on-site parking. He said school officials would set up a hotline for residents to register complaints, would tour neighborhoods more often and would institute “aggressive enforcement” of parking policies. The alternative, he added, “allows us to have a consistent message to students” about rules and procedures.

Bob Collector Won’t Seek Second Term

Bob Collector, the Montecito Association president whose impartiality was questioned by colleagues as far back as his nomination in late 2005, said Monday he would not seek a second one-year term. In a phone interview today, Collector said his decision was timed as the Association is reshaping its leadership and was designed to eliminate perceived conflicts of interest regarding his wife’s opposition to the proposed Westmont College development.

Collector said he would stay with the organization as a member of the Board of Directors and he would serve on the Association’s Executive Committee.

“The Association has always done well for sixty years and will continue to do well without me,” he said.

Collector will also continue to write his monthly column for the Montecito Journal, a responsibility that has historically been tasked to the current president of the Association.

Bill Palladini, a junior member of the Association’s Board of Directors and a member of the now-dissolved Land Use Committee, will replace Collector as president, board members confirmed Monday.

Collector’s announcement came a day before the County Board of Supervisors denied an appeal of the Westmont College Masterplan update, a proposal to add approximately 350,000 square feet to the wooded campus. Collector’s wife, Laura, is one of the leaders of the Citizens Concerned Over Westmont Expansion, the local coalition that filed the appeal.

Knowing the chances of his wife getting involved in a lawsuit of that development plan were likely, Collector said stepping down as president would be key in separating the Montecito Association from any legal battle.

A year ago, Collector told the Montecito Journal his wife’s resistance to the Westmont project would not undermine his objectivity. “I will be Caesar’s wife and without reproach,” he said last January. On Monday, he said he believed he lived up to that promise, having never cast a vote regarding the subject or attended public hearings on the project.

“What I have felt privately about that issue, I have never let it known publicly,” he said. “I have kept my word.”

Collector’s decision comes on the heels of a tumultuous year for a harried homeowners organization that faced harsh criticisms about its land use involvement, an election ballot mishap and a restructuring of the Association as a whole.

One of the strongest contentions against the Association was that its members were exceeding their authority by exercising their influence to delay or alter development projects. Collector has denied that assertion but has admitted that his organization’s presence in land use creates some overlap.

Collector said his proudest achievement for the year were discussions between his organization and County agencies to clarify local planning and architectural guidelines, efforts that he believed would create “less contention” in land use issues and “fewer appeals.” Changes to those guidelines, including clearer language on permitted floor area ratios for homes and more inclusive public meeting minutes, could come within the next five weeks.