Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Council keeps Mesa project alive


A proposal to build nine homes in a Mesa neighborhood became the topic of contention at the Santa Barbara City Council yesterday as city leaders weighed the benefits of affordable housing with the impacts of increased density and development.
Originally rejected by a 4-0 vote of the Planning Commission as a 12-condo project with four affordable units, the project had since been revised to nine units with four at affordable rates. After much deliberation and debate, the City Council upheld the developer’s appeal on a 4-3 vote, effectively overruling the Planning Commission.

Yesterday’s decision simply allowed for the initiation of a zoning modification and a General Plan amendment to allow for the increased development. The project will still need a five-vote majority of the council in order to receive final approval.
Those who voted in favor of continuing the process said the benefit of affordable housing and the project’s general compatibility with neighboring properties outweighed density issues.
“If we can’t approve this one, I’m at a loss as to what we can approve,” Councilmember Roger Horton said.
Horton joined councilmembers Grant House, Helene Schneider and Das Williams in upholding the appeal. Those opposed to the motion said despite admirable aspects of the project, overturning a Planning Commission decision and amending the General Plan when the city is currently involved in an update of the General Plan is too far a leap to make.
“I believe that the planning commissioners are our land-use experts,” Councilmember Dale Francisco said. “I need to see a very, very convincing reason for overruling their judgment.”
The project in question is part of an illegal subdivision dating back to 1929 known as the Rogers Tract that merged in 2005. The site, about an acre in size, is on a slope that has a 16 percent average incline, an issue that played a role in the Planning Commission’s decision to reject the project.
Concerns by neighbors about traffic and safety impacts also prompted several planning commissioners felt the density was too high. Others felt it was premature to initiate zoning and General Plan changes during the update process, according to a staff report.
John Jostes, a planning commissioner who attended yesterday’s council meeting, said he would likely not support the revised project.
“There may be other commissioners who may be more receptive to a project with lesser density,” he said. “I, for one, would still have concerns about an increase in density on this site because of the slopes and because of neighborhood concerns.”
Mark Lloyd, a planning consultant speaking on behalf of the property owner, said while he is not inclined to drag projects through the appeal process, he felt this particular proposal was worthy of discussing at the City Council level.
“We felt that there was enough merit in the project … that it warranted your input and decision,” he said.
Calling it an “exceptional model” for affordable housing, he described the two-story, 2,200-square-foot market units and 1,100-square-foot affordable units as surrounded with abundant open space and yard areas.
“Our composite here is to provide a project that has 50 percent affordable housing in it,” he said. “We think that’s a worthy goal.”
Neighbors of the project, including several from the SHIFCO senior housing complex, spoke out yesterday as well. Those opposed said the impact from construction of a neighboring subdivision project that involves 14 units is already unbearable.
“Some of the residents are very discouraged about the current project going on above us,” SHIFCO manager Inger Loken-Budke said. “…It’s mud when it’s raining and it’s dust when it’s not raining.”
Others spoke in favor of the project, calling it generous in its affordability and compatible with the neighborhood.
Following staff discussion and public comment, the task of deliberation fell to the council. Williams took up the issue first, arguing that although his preference is to leave hillsides alone, he is worried the property owner might decide to build two large homes if this project is rejected outright.
“I would argue that if we don’t allow at least the possibility of a project … then the only recourse is to go back to build these two mansions, which I think is the worst possible outcome.”
He contended that traffic issues caused by two large homes, with trips by house staff and yard workers, is at least comparable to that of the smaller units being proposed.
In addition to disagreeing with that claim, Francisco said the city cannot simply amend the General Plan and zoning laws every time an admirable project comes up.
“I think the result of that is chaos,” Francisco said. “…I believe that a guiding framework for land use planning is fundamental.”
Councilmember Iya Falcone also argued that while planning and development shouldn’t come to a halt during the General Plan update, the city is on the eve of that update process and tinkering with the plan at this point is not appropriate.
“I’m just not convinced it’s prudent to initiate a General Plan amendment,” she said.
Although in disagreement over the project before them, the councilmembers all expressed discontent with the impact of the current construction of the 14-unit complex taking place in that neighborhood. House said city officials need to make issues with runoff, dust and traffic their highest priority.
“We must get that back on track,” he said. “These people should not be enduring some of the things they have had to endure.”

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