Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Supes OK rezoning for 'public benefit'


For the next three years, no land will be rezoned in the unincorporated Eastern Goleta Valley unless proposed projects are determined by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission to be a “public benefit,” according to a nearly unanimous decision by the Board of Supervisors yesterday.
The rezone clause, as it was called at the meeting, is a way to put any development in the area, which is sometimes referred to as “Noleta,” on hold until the Goleta Community Plan can be updated — a process the county estimates will take about three years.

While all of the supervisors except Joe Centeno voted to approve the staff recommended resolution, many at the meeting argued that what is a public benefit to one person might not be to another, and urged the board to restrict any rezoning from occurring while the community plan is being updated.
Centeno, who abstained from voting, said he wanted the language tightened up.
“We ought to let them do their work and we, the Board of Supervisors, ought not to be making rezones behind their backs,” Centeno said. “I strongly believe people in their respective communities can design their communities the way they want.”
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, whose district includes the area in question, said she doesn’t think the phrase “public benefit” will let anyone skirt through the rezone process without having to meet a high standard.
She said the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors will have to look at each rezone request individually if and when they occur, and that they are tough audiences to please.
“If any rezone is to take place, it’s under the most severe of circumstances,” Wolf said. “It’s as stringent as the board is.”
But that was little comfort to dozens of residents who voiced their disapproval of the “public benefit” standard during public comment.
Gary Earle, one of the most outspoken residents in the Eastern Goleta Valley, said he believes groups in favor of creating high density affordable housing will use the language as a loophole to get their projects approved. After the meeting, Earle accused Wolf of breaking promises she made during her 2006 campaign to not allow any rezones until the community plan was approved.
“She reneged on a campaign promise,” Earle said. “She wanted that public benefit to be as loose as possible.”
Wolf denied breaking any campaign promises, saying her voting record when it comes to community and general plans speaks for itself, and just because proposed rezones may surface in the coming years doesn’t mean she has to approve them.
“I still don’t have to allow rezones,” she said. “If it comes to a vote I don’t have to approve a rezone.”
Earle said he fears the loophole could grow and any developer could make an argument that a project provides a “public benefit” simply because it includes new sidewalks.
While Earle and many others were advocating for stricter language, affordable housing advocates and other community members said a moratorium on rezones for three years would thwart valuable public housing opportunities.
Mickey Flacks, who spoke on behalf of the Housing Authority of the County of Santa Barbara, said she was pleased with the board’s decision and hopes that in the near future, an affordable housing project will be realized in the Eastern Goleta Valley.
Flacks is especially excited about a proposed 400-unit housing project that would be located on an 18-acre site located east of Turnpike on Calle Real. The Metropolitan Transit District currently owns the site, and Flacks said negotiations are currently under way for the Housing Authority to lease or purchase the land.
“I think that would not be difficult to prove that that would be a public benefit,” Flacks said of the project. “So I wanted that language in there.”
She said it’s unlikely the final plans will include 400 units, but hopes the project can begin making headway at the end of this year.
Flacks insisted that a moratorium on all rezoning would have put the MTD project on hold for the next three years and likely several more, during which time the money for the project could run out.
“It provides precisely the kind of housing we need in this community without the kind of housing we don’t need,” she said.
This project however, is just the kind that Earle hopes to prevent from moving into the area until the community plan can be updated.
He went so far as to accuse Wolf of having the MTD project in mind when she opted to include the phrase “public benefit” instead of using more prohibitive language.
A possible alternative that Earle called a “compromise,” would have been to restrict all rezones “unless the project itself is for a public purpose.” He said such a project would include the construction of a fire or police station.
While the door seems to be open for the MTD project that Flacks is supporting, the question of how one determines what a public benefit is remains.
Bob Field, a Santa Ynez resident who has participated in the lengthy process of updating the Santa Ynez Valley Community Plan, said the language used to restrict rezoning there was even more stringent, but a project was still approved by the Planning Commission.
That project was Stage Stop Plaza at the corner of Highway 154 and Grand Avenue in Los Olivos.
The Planning Commission voted 3-2 to approve the plaza in January after it found the mixed-use development had “significant community benefits.”
Those benefits, according to a story in the Lompoc Record, were the paving of surrounding streets and construction public restrooms for the commercial district, which is heavily occupied by wine tasting rooms.
But Field argued that Stage Stop Plaza, which as proposed includes 51,165 square feet of retail, office and other development on a three-acre site, was inappropriate because it occurred before the community plan update was completed.
First District Planning Commissioner Michael Cooney, who voted against approving Stage Stop Plaza, said he did so because he thought it was inappropriate to “get out ahead of the community plan.”
In terms of yesterday’s discussion, Cooney said he had hoped the board would have discussed more thoroughly the exact meaning of “public benefit.”
“The term is ambiguous and is susceptible to more than one interpretation,” Cooney said. “I was kind of hoping the supervisors would agree at least on some limitations, but if it’s going to be a case by case analyses, we’ll have to have some tough cases to see if we can define it better.”

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