An Inconvenient Truth: It Takes a Fire to Define a Town

I believe I can say with some assurance that one thing most Montecito residents share is a love of our village. That’s why many were disturbed over the way we were portrayed by the national media when the Tea Fire exploded. Outsiders unjustly defined our community as “a tony hideaway for the rich and famous, a home to celebrities and corporate titans residing in luxurious estates.” News anchors and reporters dropped names such as Oprah Winfrey, Jeff Bridges, John Cleese, Christopher Lloyd, Rob Lowe and Ivan Reitman, all residents, though only Mr. Lloyd lost his home. As fires raged, television newscasters spoke breathlessly of how Ellen DeGeneres lived here until selling her $20-million estate to Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive.

The impression created was that Montecito is a town focused on celebrities, a wealthy enclave of posh second homes and mega-million-dollar estates, without character and without a soul. A drive down burned-out Coyote Road and up Conejo and Westmont Roads dispels that myth, but leaves the larger questions of what exactly is Montecito and, more importantly, what do we who live here want it to be?

What is Montecito?

Montecito, when not ablaze, is California as it once was—quiet, serene, unhurried, a place of soothing beauty, a coastal town with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean and the scenic Channel Islands. Nestled among rolling foothills, numerous creeks, on the pristine south-central coast of California, it is a land of warmth and sunshine ideal for raising a family.

Montecito is a place where less is more; a place where some high-profile people come in order to go unrecognized and to be ignored, but where most residents are middle-class families; many have been here a long time, having bought their homes at “normal” prices.

Montecito is not Greenwich, nor Nantucket and certainly not Newport Beach. We are Jeannine’s or Montecito Coffee Shop for breakfast, and Pierre Lafond or Montecito Deli for take-out. We are a tale of two villages, upper and lower, featuring small shops owned and operated by people we know and trust. We appreciate the harmony of the land and seek to preserve it so that future generations enjoy what we have inherited from our forebears.

Here, neighbors speak to neighbors and receive nods of recognition when pushing a shopping cart through Vons or roaming Montecito Market. There is a generous spirit to Montecito that makes non-profit community service and charitable giving the preferred way of life.

Montecito is “Beautification Day” and the 4th of July parade, pancakes at the fire station and a picnic in Manning Park. We are friends and family watching sea lions and dolphins off Butterfly Beach, or taking daily strolls along an uncrowded shore in 70-degree weather.

What do we want Montecito to be?

Residents of Montecito are passionate and vigilant about protecting its “semi-rural” way of life. We zone for low-density residential development, limited commercial space, easy access to hiking and biking trails, increased opportunities for beach access and recreation, protection of homeowner views of the ocean and mountains, preserving open space, limiting mountainside development, protecting plants and habitat, preserving winding scenic roadways remembering they were built for beauty not speed. Finally, we have implemented strict architectural design guidelines, but the few remaining parcels capable of hillside development are under attack. We need an updated Community Plan to better manage this hillside growth.

Development of our commercial core – Coast Village Road – has been removed from our protective custody and handed over to the more lenient City of Santa Barbara with easier requirements for added height and density in return for larger sales tax revenues. As rents rise in that core, pet shops and gelato stores are replaced by homogenized retail chains such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf that take but don’t give. Perhaps one day, Montecito can reclaim Coast Village Road and recapture its unique appeal.

“Change is the law of life, and those who look only at the past or present are certain to miss the future,” said John F. Kennedy. With that in mind, we have two choices: let change happen and take it in stride, or, revise Montecito’s Community Plan to better protect what we have. We need to better define ourselves, before others do it for us.