School Trustee Questions Bridge Design

County Says Project Had Appropriate Review Process

A project to replace a temporary bridge over Oak Creek has raised the ire of a Montecito Union School Board trustee who says the design for the bridge is inadequate and would result in the cutting down of at least three mature trees. Bob Kupiec, a local architect who is a first-year member of the board, said County engineers drafted a “bad design” that he believes could have been prevented if a licensed architect and landscape architect had been involved in the project.

On April 3, the final designs will be shown for approval to the County Board of Supervisors and a contract for construction must be awarded by the end of June or the County loses a $400,000 state grant that makes the project possible. The approach of the deadline, Kupiec said, leaves little time to make necessary revisions to the plans.

“None of us had a chance to look at what they were doing,” he said. “Because of this funding deadline, we’re in a tough place.”

The replacement of the Oak Creek footbridge, across from the YMCA on Santa Rosa Lane, is the final product of a project that dates back to the temporary bridge’s installment in August 2004. The bridge had been placed as a safe route for kids walking to Montecito Union School, whose main entrance is at the corner of San Ysidro Road and Santa Rosa Lane.

The scheduled construction of the permanent bridge is being made possible by a state grant that is funding Safe Routes to School, a County program designed to decrease traffic and pollution by creating opportunities for students to walk to school.

Calls to County engineers were forwarded to William Boyer, the County director of communications who said the project had been given an appropriate review process and a lengthy public comment period. He said the County did not receive any feedback or complaints about the designs.

“County staff did everything they needed to do until the comment period passed,” Boyer said.

While the deadline for losing the state grant is four months away, Boyer said the “project is moving forward” ahead of schedule, with a date to break ground on May 7.

Construction designs do call for the removal of two Sycamore trees, but Boyer said as many as 20 “sapling variety” trees would be planted as replacements.

Still, Kupiec was confident the project could be executed without any removal of trees by shifting the placement of the bridge a few feet south, closer to the YMCA building. In addition, Kupiec raised complaints about the bulky makeup of the bridge that he claimed would be “much bigger and much longer” than the temporary version. He said the structure’s abutments could be improved upon to create an end product that aptly reflects the architectural flavor of the area and would be suitable for future eras.

“I want the sixty- or seventy-year plan to be adequate,” he said. “It has to be functioning and aesthetically pleasing. If it doesn’t achieve both of those, it’s a failure.”

Carbajal Names New Commissioner

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has chosen Jack Overall to become the next Montecito Planning commissioner, filling the empty seat left by Dick Thielscher’s resignation in December. Carbajal said Monday that Overall’s “extensive land use and community involvement” were “key factors” in helping him prevail over the other two candidates, Stephen Murdoch and J.W. Colin.

“In balancing the three individuals, I felt that Mr. Overall’s propensity for land use and his involvement in the community were really what set him apart,” Carbajal said.

The commission appointment confirms nearly two-month old reports by County insiders who had predicted that the vacant position would belong to Overall, a 16-year Montecito resident and longtime member of the Montecito Association Land Use Committee and Board of Directors.

Reached by phone today, Overall said he hoped to bring to the Montecito Planning Commission “a deliberative approach,” one that prevents him from “caving in to make snap decisions.”

He said he also wanted to provide a “rational and reasonable voice,” crediting his predecessors for having a pulse on the interests of local residents.

“As a principle, I think any time you have more local control and influence, you are more apt to reflect the values of that community,” Overall said. “I’d like to see that applied to other aspects of the county.”

Overall comes to the commission having been treasurer of the Montecito Association and the homeowners organization’s vice-president on two separate occasions. He also served on the Association’s Land Use Committee, having most recently led the Westmont College Masterplan study team.

Working through that project’s “complicated” and “very involved environmental impact process” was integral in preparing him to be a planning commissioner, Overall said, referring to the experience as “baptism by fire.”

Overall also brings a breadth of experience in the non-profit sector. He is a past president of the Santa Barbara Zoological Foundation and has served on the boards of the Community Environmental Council and the Santa Barbara Historical Society.

Carbajal’s appointment will be placed on the agenda for the County Board of Supervisors hearing on February 20. If confirmed, Overall will be eligible to serve the commission at its February 21 hearing.

Overall comes a Montecito Planning Commission that has taken heavy fire in recent months regarding what critics charge as biased and arbitrary decisions. But Overall defended the commission’s record, saying that “recent developments have been unfortunate” and have “clouded people’s judgment about what the real planning process is.”

Like any other government, Overall said he sees “ways this system can be improved.” He deflected a question about what past issues he felt could have been resolved more effectively, saying he didn’t want to cast aspersions on his predecessors or future colleagues.

Deadline Expires on Coral Casino Lawsuit

In the space of seven years, the quest to renovate the Coral Casino has endured more than 100 meetings, long periods of intense, often querulous debate and a veritable gauntlet of review by government agencies and legal panels. The renovation now appears to be in the clear.

Cynthia Ziegler, the key opponent of that renovation, has allowed the January 29 deadline to submit a petition to the California Supreme Court to pass, a definite sign that she would not extend her lawsuit to the next level.

Representatives of club owner Ty Warner responded with relief, but found it “hard to celebrate” given the amount of time it took to reach this point and the escalating costs of the project since its inception – from a reported $18 million to $60 million.

“It’s difficult to see this as a victory,” said Greg Rice, executive vice-president of acquisitions for Ty Warner Hotel & Resorts. “It just means that we survived.”

During a phone conversation Tuesday, Ziegler said her group, the Coral Casino Preservation Committee, was not taking any further legal action. She said she felt the group had not “accomplished our goal of preserving Coral Casino in its most authentic state” and was disappointed that boards and commissions hadn’t taken “preservation of important county landmarks” more seriously.

“I think the community was diminished by the controversy and the result,” Ziegler said.

With litigation out of the way, construction at the club continues to make progress as Warner spokespersons have predicted the renovation would end in time for a Fourth of July reopening.

Warner had taken an immense risk to perform construction during litigation. A verdict in Ziegler’s favor would have required the hotel tycoon to restore altered portions of the club.

Carbajal Sends Diplomat to ‘Defuse Tension’

First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal has dispatched his top emissary to “touch basis” with community leaders to glean comments and concerns about land use issues that have triggered scads of disagreement in recent months. 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 members 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.

For his part, Cooney said he saw the discussions as a way of “consulting with an array of individuals close to the fabric of Montecito.” Rather than enter meetings without preconceived notions about whether the planning process needs reform, Cooney said his goal was to give a good study of the system.

“I always feel government needs to examine itself in terms of whether it’s being effective, and Montecito is no exception,” he 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.”