S. Coast handed reprieve on growth


May 25, 2006 7:33 AM

Freeing South Coast neighborhoods from high-density growth required by the state, the county Planning Commission on Wednesday night unanimously agreed to place 56 acres of new homes in the North County.

At a tense meeting, commissioners decided to begin studying 10 North County parcels that could take at least 20 homes per acre, exempting almost the entire South Coast from rezonings that many residents said would destroy areas that hold as few as three homes per acre.

While neighborhood preservation activists cheered the decision, affordable housing advocates said they were "very disappointed."

The vote advances the county's so-called housing element, a master plan that the state requires all local governments to submit every five years. The plans, which require local areas to create housing for people of all income levels, have generated controversy across California.

Neighborhood groups in areas like the Goleta Valley and Montecito decry the mandate as a "cookie-cutter" approach to creating affordable housing. They have requested the right to plan for new density through traditional channels -- for example, by updating their community plans.

But affordable housing advocates say the county must include new growth on the South Coast this year or jeopardize the area's ability to retain a "critical work force" of nurses, firefighters, teachers and police.

Commissioners agreed that the county should not delay its housing element any further. The plan is already two years past due.

Planners must begin a detailed environmental study of lands for possible rezoning by this summer. They have one year to complete the study. The North County sites to be studied, totaling 96 acres, will fall in Los Alamos, Orcutt, the Santa Ynez Valley and Vandenberg Village. Isla Vista will receive six acres.

Commissioners and many observers said the political volatility of housing issues on the South Coast could delay the process considerably.

"Let's just get this done," said commissioner Jack Boysen, who in the past said the South Coast should take its "fair share" of growth required by the state. He appears to have reversed that position.

Commissioner Cecilia Brown, whose 2nd District was slated for most of the new growth on the South Coast, said community members updating the Goleta Valley community plan should have enough time to decide what housing goes where. She rebuked colleagues for suggesting that the Goleta Valley accept all of the South Coast's housing.

Planners have put forward no sites from other unincorporated areas, including Montecito and the Carpinteria Valley.

"It just shouldn't be placed in this one specific area," Ms. Brown said.

But commissioner Michael Cooney made an eleventh-hour pitch to consider studying at least one Goleta Valley parcel: an 18-acre plot owned by the Santa Barbara School Districts that officials may want to convert to teacher housing.

His colleagues, led by Ms. Brown, rejected that attempt.

"Without a true planning effort, it's difficult to make decisions about sites," Ms. Brown said.

Critics blasted the decision as bad for families and bad for the environment.

"They're forcing people to commute, and they're forcing people to pollute. It's not good land-use policy," said Homebuilders Association spokesman Jerry Bunin.

The majority of speakers called on officials to include the South Coast in their affordable housing efforts. One speaker said the region would lose its middle class, retaining only its very wealthy and very poor residents.

"My entire generation is priced out of this community," said Ben Romo, a county education official and son of Santa Barbara City College President John Romo. "Everyone I went to high school with is gone."

e-mail: bmcmanigal@newspress.com