Monday, December 10, 2007

Meadow Terrace project rejected by HLAC


After hours of animated discussion and public comment, the County Historic Landmark Advisory Commission voted 5-4 today to deny a revised proposal to build a terraced plaza in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, better known as the Meadow Terrace project.
Although dissenting commissioners expressed hope that the HLAC could continue to work with garden management to find a reasonable compromise, a majority of the nine-member panel decided to take a stand against the modified proposal.

“Our charge is to protect and preserve landmarks,” Commissioner John Woodward said. “…It’s very obvious that this project is to develop a special events area first and a display for native plants second.”
After an initial denial by the HLAC of the original project in August — after construction on the terraces had already started — the commission formed an ad-hoc committee and held a special meeting on November 15, trying to work out a solution agreeable to all sides.
Originally, the design called for a three-tiered plaza with rock retaining walls to be installed in an area west of the meadow at the former site of a diseased oak tree removed earlier this year.
Since then, changes to the plan have reduced hardscape surfaces from about 4,000 square feet to 1,525 square feet, altered the three 18-inch-high retaining walls to slope down to ground level, and replaced concrete walkways with flagstone and decomposed granite surfaces.
In a packed meeting in the Board of Supervisors hearing room in Santa Barbara, dozens of community members — many residents of Mission Canyon and longtime members of the Botanic Garden — spoke out in favor or against the Meadow Terrace project.
Comments ranged from one speaker who termed the project “not a radioactive mountain as some may say, but a beautiful molehill” to another who said she visited the site and “it looked like Walt Disney had risen from the grave to build a yellow-brick road and a place for trams to stop.”
Most of the 56 members of the public who submitted speaker slips to the commission rose to the podium to express their views, drawing the 10 a.m. meeting out until just before 1 p.m. Many of the commission members also delivered their own views on the project before putting it to a vote.
“The [retaining] walls are still struggling to be acceptable,” Commissioner Barbara Lowenthal said, adding that she still feels there is the opportunity to continue the discussion and improve upon the design.
“I believe that the historic landscape design of this portion of the garden is being violated by this plan,” Commissioner James Lowsley said.
He suggested rolling into an overall master plan for the Botanic Garden currently in an Environmental Impact Review process.
“The plan that we see here today has very little change [from earlier proposals],” Woodward said. “…It’s still a change from a natural landscape to a paved landscape.”
Woodward ultimately made the motion to deny the revised project, noting that the board of directors for the Botanic Garden can still choose to continue working with the HLAC or go forward with an appeal to the County Board of Supervisors.
Commissioner Deborah Schwartz, who voted against Woodward’s motion, said the HLAC cannot take hard-line positions and meet everyone’s desires.
“While I’m looking to uphold our charter … I’m also looking to balance the needs of all the voices we have heard from,” she said. “…It’s been a very difficult several months.”
Ultimately, Commissioners Lowenthal, Audrey Mussell and Sue Adams joined Schwartz in the dissenting vote.
Although divided over the path forward, the commissioners seemed in agreement that the proposal should have come before the HLAC prior to the start of construction. The Meadow Terrace project initially skipped HLAC review, receiving approval from the County Planning and Development department earlier this summer.
An outpouring of public complaints brought the project to the HLAC in mid-August, which determined its design represented a substantial deviation from the historic landmark design concept, resulting in a stop-work order.
“Had this project followed proper procedures, the commission would be discussing this in a whole new light,” said Steve Sherrill, a Mission Canyon resident who voiced his opposition to the project.
Following the HLAC’s initial denial of the project in August, attorneys for the Botanic Garden appealed that decision to the Board of Supervisors, an appeal they had postponed in hopes of working out a viable compromise.
Dr. Ed Schneider, president and CEO of the Botanic Garden, said while the board of trustees will discuss the matter, he believes the issue will head to the Board of Supervisors in mid-January.
“I do believe we’ll go forward with the appeal,” he said. “We feel that the 2003 Historic Landmark agreement was a document approved, and therefore has ownership, by the Board of Supervisors.”
Dr. Schneider said issues concerning the Meadow Terrace project hinge on the definition of the historic landmark design concept — something he feels is not clearly delineated in the 2003 resolution declaring 23 acres of the garden a Historic Landmark.
“We’re not asking for the go-ahead for continuing construction on the terrace,” he said. “We’re asking for an interpretation of the 2003 resolution.”
Once that issue is elucidated, he said the project will return to either the County Planning Commission or the HLAC for further discussion on how to proceed.

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