Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Subdivision sparks evacuation debate


A hotly contested subdivision project in the Riviera gave members of the Santa Barbara City Council the opportunity to address a larger issue: getting residents safely out of the foothills in the event of a wildfire.
While discussing the appeal of a proposed four-lot subdivision on Mountain Drive, the Council emphasized the need to examine the effectiveness of fire evacuation plans for the Riviera and the reliability of escape routes.

“I don’t think we should be approving any more projects in high fire-hazard areas,” Councilmember Brian Barnwell said. “...I will not feel comfortable in the future approving any project if we are adding more cars to the road.”
Councilmember Iya Falcone agreed that the fundamental concern raised by neighbors opposed to the subdivision is an “underlying, basic fear of getting out.” She lobbied for a study of the area to determine whether residents of the fire-prone foothills will be able to escape a fast-moving blaze.
A proposed subdivision of an 8-acre parcel at 561 W. Mountain Dr. into four separate plots, which would share a private access road already used by five properties, sparked the discussion at yesterday’s Council meeting. Neighbors appealed a Planning Commission vote of 4 to 3 to approve the project, saying it will put the public’s health, safety and welfare at risk.
“The real concern is everyone getting out in the event of a fire,” said Craig Christenson, who filed the appeal and is one of the property owners who shares the private roadway. “...The neighborhood is not supportive of this project, make no mistake about it.”
Christenson said streets in the area are already narrow and aggravated by illegal parking, and adding more cars to the road will only further the problem.
Bruce Bartlett, speaking for the Planning Commissioners who supported the project, disagreed with Christenson, calling it a “model project” for subdivisions in the future.
“The developer has done everything in their power to make this a good project,” Bartlett said.
He argued that existing properties in the area would be better off in terms of fire access with the project, which would clean up much of the overgrowth of vegetation on the property. Santa Barbara Fire Chief Ron Prince agreed, telling the Council that the project would reduce the fire hazard and improve the water supply and access to the property.
“Our staff feels very comfortable with this project’s approach to fire safety,” Chief Prince said.
Councilmember Barnwell dismissed the argument that the project will improve fire access beyond a small fire in that location, saying that in the event of a major wildfire, firefighters are going to be worried about getting people evacuated safely, not protecting structures or trying to access properties like the proposed subdivision to fight the blaze.
John Jostes, a member of the dissenting Planning Commissioners, said the project would be much better off as a three-lot parcel, explaining that density issues are much more important in high fire zones. A nearby resident agreed, urging the Council not to let her neighborhood turn into another Mission Canyon, calling that area overdeveloped.
“There is a lot of good to say about this project,” Councilmember Helene Schneider said, citing the green-building techniques, defensible space and willingness on the part of the developer to work with neighbors and city officials.
However, the overall impact of adding three new homes to the area, and keeping the current structure on the property, eventually outweighed those positive aspects.
The Council seemed to agree that reducing the subdivision to three lots would help placate the neighbors and mitigate some of the issues with access and evacuating during a disaster, voting unanimously to have the developer revise his plans to a three-lot subdivision and return to Council for approval.
However, Councilmember Grant House reiterated that there is a “critical” need to study evacuation plans in the area, saying, “The issues raised today exist whether or not this project exists.”

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