Carbajal Sends Diplomat to ‘Defuse Tension’

In what could be a first step toward an official County panel to examine Montecito planning procedures, First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has dispatched his top emissary to “touch bases” with community leaders to glean comments and concerns about land use issues. Michael Cooney, the Montecito attorney who also represents the first district for the County Planning Commission, has been tasked, Carbajal said, to “ascertain points of contention” and report back with “suggestions and recommendations on what needs to happen.”

During a phone interview Friday, the supervisor said his assignment of Cooney was meant to “defuse tension and also understand what the planning issues really are.”

The upcoming mediation sessions are in response to complaints raised by the local coalition, Voices of Montecito, about what they claim is a “broken” planning process that has allowed flawed decisions on development projects, at the expense of applicants. Members of the group have repeatedly called for a County-appointed “blue ribbon panel” to study, among several subjects, the extent of powers for planning commissioners and the process by which those commissioners are appointed.

The concept of a panel has been supported by Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno, who said two weeks ago he could see the issue wind up on a future agenda.

On January 9, three North County supervisors blocked Carbajal’s appointments to the Montecito Planning Commission as a way to scrutinize that commission’s effectiveness. The supervisors ratified the appointments two weeks later, furthering Carbajal’s suspicions that the delay had been a political ruse.

As to whether Cooney’s discussions with local groups will ultimately lead to the formation of a review panel, Carbajal said such talk was premature. “I don’t even want to go there yet,” he said.

But Voices of Montecito leaders responded to the assignment with optimism. Reached by phone in Santa Fe on Friday, Michael Jaffe, the president of the group, said he was eager to get started on ways of “streamlining the planning process” to make it more “user-friendly.” Jaffe and fellow group member, Mary Belle Snow, and a couple other Voices representatives will meet Cooney for the first time at the end of next week.

“I think all of this is very positive,” Jaffe said. “I’m excited to the extent that Salud has stepped up to review these things.

“I have no idea whether we’ll have a blue ribbon panel or not,” he went on. “That will be up to Cooney.”

But Cooney’s meetings will not be held with the Voices of Montecito alone, a fact that Jaffe not only agreed to, but also encouraged. Discussions will include other parties, including possibly members of the Montecito Association. “One of the things we haven’t done yet is listen to the broader community,” Jaffe said.

Well-regarded for his peacekeeping talents, Cooney has historically been an effective and often utilized diplomat for the first district office. The assignments are part of what Carbajal calls his “hallmark in the way that I’m governing,” a way to resolve divisive land use debates before they reach hearing chambers.

Cooney was instrumental in helping actor Rob Lowe and neighbor and businessman Fred Gluck reach an accord on their land use dispute, a settlement that averted a Board of Supervisors hearing and potentially a legal battle. Last fall, Cooney participated in discussions with representatives of Ty Warner Hotels & Resorts that were credited for the creation of “public access” signs at Butterfly Beach. The County planning commissioner has also been involved in mediations for the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden and the Westmont College expansion.

“He has the demeanor and character that people respect,” Carbajal said of Cooney. “He really strives to get people together and work out a compromise.”