Montecito Water Rates To Rise

On Tuesday August 19, the Montecito Water District Board of Directors held a public hearing to discuss the proposed rate structure the board is considering. It was the first of two meetings to gain input from district customers regarding the rate increase and Ordinance 90, a proposed ordinance that would change the classifications some customers fall into.

“None of these are written in stone; we’re trying to find a solution that is the fairest to everyone that will get the demand in line with supply,” said MWD Board President Dick Shaikewitz during his opening comments. MWD General Manager Tom Mosby explained that the district began looking at a water conservation rate structure back in 1994, which included studies by several consultants, special workshops with the board, public presentations and numerous articles here in the Journal. Currently the district has a flat-rate structure in which every unit of water is priced the same; Mosby said this method does not encourage conservation. With the proposed block-rate structure, the first “block” or quantity of water units is charged at the actual cost of acquiring, treating and delivering water to the customer; each “block” thereafter is charged more. The high water demand in Montecito coupled with a diminishing supply is the main reason for the proposed rate change. “In the last two years, demand started and didn’t stop,” Mosby said. And with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declaring a statewide drought condition, several counties in California have already declared water shortage emergency conditions.

Recently Mosby was able to acquire 1400 acre-feet of supplemental water, to the tune of $816,000. Based on current demand, that water is expected to last just two months. To make matters worse, the state is only expected to give MWD 330 acre feet of water next year, and the district has calculated it needs at least 1500 acre feet from state water supply. “The only thing that is saving us is the ability to buy supplemental state water,” Mosby said. However, the cost of acquiring supplemental state water next year will likely double.

The proposed rate increase for single-family residential customers is a four-block structure: for the first 0-20 units of water the home uses per month they will be charged the cost of service per unit ($3.90). The cost per unit after 20 increases: 21-60 units will cost $4.15 per unit, 61-120 units will cost $4.90, and anything over 120 units will cost $5.90 per unit. Multi-family residential customers will follow a three-block structure if the plan is adopted. Because there is less landscaping per unit, there are fewer units in each block. 0-9 units will cost $3.90 per unit, 10-30 units will be $4.15 per unit and $4.90 per unit for anything over 31 units. Commercial classifications will be assigned a base allotment based on their average use from 2003-2006. The cost will be $4.25 per unit within the allotment and $5.90 per unit over. Similarly the institution-public classification, which would include schools, churches, golf courses, cemeteries, sporting clubs and historic sites not used for residential purposes would have a base allotment which would cost $3.90 per unit and $4.75 over the base. Agriculture is allotted 870 units per acre per year, and the cost is $1.76 per unit. Over the 870, the cost increases to $3.90 per unit. The low cost of the agriculture rate is justified by the fact that the water they use is untreated, which is less expensive, Mosby explained, to provide.

Ordinance 90 changes the definitions of previous classifications, something the district has not considered since 1999. The purpose is to consolidate the “recreation,” “exception” and “institution” classifications into one category. Another change under Ordinance 90 is to define agricultural use as the exclusive use of at least two contiguous acres of land, under one ownership, to grow crops for human consumption or as floriculture. Specifically excluded from this classification are the cultivation of all other crops (including corn used for ethanol and cotton), ornamental plants grown in containers not for harvest, livestock grazing, polo fields, and the commercial breeding, raising, training or stabling of horses and other animals.

After presenting the rate structure to the board, members of the public were invited to comment and publicly protest the increase in rates. If the district receives protests from 50% plus 1 of its customer base, it has to go back to the drawing board, according to district counsel Chip Wullbrandt. While a handful of the public speakers present at the meeting did protest the proposed rate increase, several others asked questions of the board and applauded their efforts.

Randy Thwing, manager of Santa Barbara Cemetery said, “You’ve always treated the cemetery fairly, so thank you.” David Strauss commented, “From my point of view I consider it a rate hike and not a conservation plan.” Darlene Bierig supported the rate structure, implying that the increase may not be high enough to purchase the necessary supplemental water. “I guess I’m somewhat skeptical; maybe the rates need to be higher. I’d hate to say that and most people don’t want to hear it,” she said.

Residents Ted and Candace Buergey, Bill Howard and Ron Pulice brought up concerns over the proposed Miramar project. “I’m very concerned that you on the water board are not going to be supportive of the SEIR and are going to somehow let them slip by without doing the due diligence on the water use,” Howard said. Mrs. Buergey voiced her concern with the SEIR as well, adding that she is concerned that if the Miramar gets built they will have the option of tapping into the private well. “We really need to start conserving what we’re building in our community and make them appropriate,” she said. Sally Jordan said, “It seems to me that the elephant in the room, literally and figuratively, is the Miramar.”

With talk of the Miramar, the hearing became heated and several residents told the board they felt they were being forced to conserve and pay more in order for the Miramar project to be built. “They happen to be one of the oldest customers in the district, coming online in 1922. They have paid their fees regularly whether they’ve been open or whether they’ve been closed,” Shaikewitz said. “They are treated just as any other customers are treated.”

The Board is expected to come to a decision on Wednesday August 20 at a second hearing to be held at El Montecito Presbyterian Church, beginning at 6:30 pm. We’ll have details in the next edition of the MJ.

Possible Fire Station Sites Down to Two

After looking closely at fourteen possible sites for a third fire station in Montecito, the MFPD board has been given a short list of two recommended sites that would be most suitable to locate the station. These sites, referred to as Palmer Jackson East and Palmer Jackson West, both belong (at least in part) to resident Palmer Jackson, who, in a letter submitted to the board is “vigorously opposed” to any attempt to locate a new fire station on his property.

Daniel Gira with AMEC prepared the study, which narrowed the list of suitable parcels down to two by using the Site Selection Criteria identified by the MFPD, as well as public testimony and the opinions of potentially affected neighbors. Although Gira did say at a public meeting held August 18 that the most ideal location of a new fire station would be at the East Valley Road, Romero Canyon, Sheffield Drive intersection, both Palmer Jackson Parcels are located further east. However, according to the study, “[Their] location[s] directly on East Valley Road would still provide rapid access to most of the underserved area.” Low site constraints, lack of existing development and a potentially willing seller are reasons used to justify the selections; back in March Jackson stated he would be willing to “explore the possibilities,” a sentiment quite different then what was stated in his most recent letter.

Jackson also wrote that the Montecito Community Plan allows for the future development of “Palmer Jackson East” into as many as 91 units, given the zoning. He argued that it is this development that is largely the basis for the need for a third fire station. Because Jackson and his family, who own Palmer Jackson East “have not been pushing for development in the short term and that growth has effectively been capped by the MGMO [Montecito Growth Management Ordinance],” Jackson wrote there is no willingness to sell, absent the participation of the County.

The study, which Fire Chief Kevin Wallace estimated to have already cost $76,000, found there are four more sites that would adequately support the establishment of a new fire station. These include the Cleese property located on East Valley Road, Birnam Wood on Eastgate Lane, Kimball Griffith #1 on East Valley Road, and the Valley Club on Sheffield Drive.

Attorney Steven Amerikaner spoke on behalf of Birnam Wood Golf Club, and asked that the site be dropped from the list altogether, based in part on a Montecito Community Plan policy which requires that a new fire station would not have an adverse effect on any recreational resources. “In this respect, Birnam Wood and the Valley Club property are probably on the same footing, and that is, it is simply impossible to use this site without taking out a portion of the golf course, and that will have an adverse effect on our recreational resources; it’s just that simple,” he said. Gira responded, stating that although it is not desirable and very controversial, relocation of part of the driving range is possible. “In our opinion, at this level of study, there is potential to accommodate a fire station within the ‘hammerhead’ of the parcel; that’s not to downplay the issues... it’s not worthy to take off the list yet,” he said.

Gene Sinser, whose property was on the list at one point, asked Wallace about the true need for the new station. Wallace explained that the potential need for another station was found twenty years ago, and the most recent study “speaks to why we need it.” MFPD Board Member Dana Newquist suggested tabling the discussion of a new station because of issues with the district’s budget regarding pension and retirement plans. “If in fact a station three is built, it will exacerbate [the situation],” he said. A member of the audience agreed with Newquist, and disagreed that a new station is necessary. “Are houses burning down because the equipment can’t get there within five minutes?” he asked. Wallace reminded him that most of the calls the district responds to are medical emergencies. A suggestion was made to build a smaller station, to be only used for medical emergencies. “Particularly in Montecito, our biggest fire threat is a large brush fire; we all know that, so we have to be prepared for the medical and a very large brush fire,” Wallace responded.

So what’s next? The board will consider AMEC’s Study, and take into consideration the letters submitted by Jackson and Amerikaner via an addendum to the study. The board will also consider Newquist’s comments regarding pension issues. A discussion with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is scheduled to take place, which might change the direction of the study as well, Wallace commented. The board decided against taking action and will revisit the issue at a later board meeting.