Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Supes deny Garden's terrace project


Following hours of public testimony, the County Board of Supervisors sided with an earlier decision to deny a proposal to build a terraced plaza in the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.
In a 4-1 vote, county leaders confirmed the Historic Landmark Advisory Commission’s (HLAC) rejection of the project in part due to the fact that county staff never fully considered environmental review requirements prior to approving the project.

“We’re at a point here where we have to look procedurally at the options before us,” Supervisor Salud Carbajal said. “…All paths lead to [California Environmental Quality Act review].”
Unless the board found that the project is not subject to HLAC review or set aside the commission’s ruling, the project would have to undergo CEQA examination. In providing the dissenting vote, Supervisor Brooks Firestone argued the board should have determined the project does not fall under the purview of the HLAC due to its small scale.
Better known as the Meadow Terrace project, the design calls 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 last year.
Of the many members of the public who came forward to speak yesterday evening, some argued that the proposed project is essentially a manmade special events area with no regard for the original design or vision of the garden and its founders. Others called the project an innocuous change that will improve access for those with physical disabilities and characterized those opposed as attempting to micromanage the garden.
Dr. Ed Schneider, director and CEO of the garden, emphasized that the entirety of the garden is manmade, rather than a nature preserve, and small changes are necessary to maintain its dynamic character.
Describing the project area as less than one-tenth of an acre, he said the three terraced platforms would make the area more accessible and more useful for educational and fundraising purposes.
“This small terrace area has been used since the garden’s founding for a variety of activities,” he said, including luncheons and fundraisers.
Rick Battles, an attorney representing the garden, said the standards of the 2003 resolution naming 23 acres of the garden a Historic Landmark clearly exempt the Meadow Terrace project from the HLAC review.
He cited a section of the resolution stating “change, maintenance, repair, relocation, replacement, or updating of plant communities, temporary or permanent displays, exhibits, trails, public areas … shall not require review and approval by the commission.”
Any change to the property is a substantial deviation in the minds of the project opponents, Battles said, which he contended is clearly not the intent of the resolution. He argued that those opposed are attempting to twist its meaning to impose controls on garden management.
However, Marc Chytilo, an attorney representing a neighborhood group opposed to the project, took the opposite stance — that garden management is attempting to use the resolution to bind the board’s hands.
He argued that project constitutes a significant change in the historic design and use of the area, citing a section of the resolution stating that “any construction or installation of new structures, features or facilities on the landmark property shall not substantially deviate from, or substantially conflict with, the historic landscape design concept or historic use.”
Ultimately, the board largely sided with the argument that the project deviates from the original design, or at least that the HLAC considered the matter with due diligence.
“HLAC does seem to have a role in making this determination because it is part of the historic piece of the garden,” Supervisor Janet Wolf said. “That is why I want to confirm their actions. We gave them the authorization to make these decisions.”
The Meadow Terrace project initially received approval from the County Planning and Development department last summer, skipping HLAC review. After an outpouring of complaints from the public as construction began, the project came before the HLAC in September, which ruled that the project represented a substantial deviation from the historic landmark design concept and ordered work to stop.
At that meeting, the HLAC also established an ad-hoc subcommittee designed to work with the garden to modify the project. Following meetings with that committee, the garden submitted a revised proposal to the HLAC at a special meeting in November.
Only five commissioners attended that meeting and they continued the item to the HLAC’s regular meeting on Dec. 10 due to time constraints. Commission bylaws require members to be present for all discussion of any agenda item in order to vote on it. In an attempt to allow all nine commissioners to participate in the Dec. 10 hearing, the HLAC adjourned the continued item and considered the modified proposal as a new item.
County staff determined that action to be a procedural error that violated the Brown Act, which governs public meetings. As a result, the Board of Supervisors also rescinded the action of the HLAC on Dec. 10, specifically a 5-4 denial of the revised project, and dismissed the garden’s appeal of that decision as moot.
In addition to sending the project back to the planning stages, the board also directed the garden to work with the HLAC to revise the landmark resolution to enhance its clarity.
“There is no doubt that everybody here loves the garden,” Supervisor Carbajal said. “It’s unfortunate that this project came before County Planning and Development and received its Substantial Conformity Determination, which led to the string of events that have led us to this point.”

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