Tuesday, April 22, 2008

City plans to create temporary building guidelines


After a lengthy seesaw battle, Santa Barbara city leaders approved by a slim 4-3 margin a proposal to have the city’s Ordinance Committee draft temporary legislation to address concerns about the height, bulk and scale of recent building projects until the city’s General Plan update process is complete.
Supporters of the plan to create an interim zoning ordinance argued it would show the public that city leaders are willing to take action and that it will be informed by the ongoing Plan Santa Barbara process, the overhauling of the city’s guiding principles.
Opponents called the plan a failed attempt to derail a citizen-led initiative to lower building height limits that is not necessary or appropriate in the midst of Plan Santa Barbara.

Councilmembers Das Williams, Helene Schneider and Iya Falcone, who brought the proposal to the council’s agenda, joined with Councilmember Grant House yesterday evening to vote in favor of drafting an interim ordinance.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” House said. “Is it all the way? No way.”
In contrast, Councilmember Dale Francisco called the proposal an “end-run” around the Plan Santa Barbara process and a failed attempt to head off the petition being circulated for signatures that would lower building height limits.
Using comments by several organizers of the ballot initiative who spoke yesterday evening as evidence, he said the push to collect signatures and get the initiative on the ballot is continuing despite any action to approve an interim ordinance.
Francisco said an ordinance would also chew up planning staff time in the midst of the General Plan update.
“We don’t need to rush into anything,” Francisco said. “I think an interim ordinance would be a tremendous burden on our staff.”
Mayor Marty Blum sided with Francisco’s argument that an interim ordinance won’t keep the height limit initiative off the ballot. She said doing so would only muddy the Plan Santa Barbara conversation.
“I think it’s an odd thing for us to send it off to Ordinance Committee,” she said.
Schneider and Falcone emphasized that the ordinance will not be a substitute to the General Plan update, but rather an opportunity to foment more community discussion and allay concerns about recent developments, particularly along Chapala Street.
“Because people are feeling the need for speed,” Falcone said, “we need to do something in the interim.”
Schneider also called the proposed ballot initiative, organized by a group known as Save El Pueblo Viejo, an “end-run” around Plan Santa Barbara. She said while an interim ordinance is not an ideal situation, it is necessary given the context.
“Of course it’s not perfect,” she said, calling the ordinance language proposed yesterday evening a starting point.
In fact, most of those who spoke yesterday agreed that the draft language presented is far from ideal —including a height limit of 40 feet that didn’t include towers, stairwells or architectural projections, and an exception for projects with a designated amount of affordable units to exceed that limit by 12 feet.
Bruce Bartlett, a member of the city’s Planning Commission, said the language leaves much to be desired, but “at least it will buy us the time we need to have a real community discussion.”
Many in attendance, including several supporters of the Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative, also agreed that a citizen-led ballot initiative is too simplistic to address complex planning issues related to size, bulk and scale of buildings.
“The issues are so subtle that it’s somewhat ham-fisted to have a ballot initiative that just talks about height,” said Brian Barnwell, a former city councilmember and one of the organizers of the Save El Pueblo Viejo initiative.
Barnwell said the initiative has cachet because local residents lost faith in city leaders to take action on buildings they perceived to be inappropriately large and bulky. With a good interim ordinance, however, he said he would be willing to urge people to vote against the initiative, if it gathers the requisite number of signatures to appear on the ballot.
It’s unclear how willing other organizers and supporters of the ballot initiative would be to campaigning against the initiative if the city passes an ordinance they find appropriate.
House, who appeared to waver back and forth on the merits of an interim ordinance, ultimately swung in favor of the proposal after Falcone and Williams agreed not to place a timeline on the process.
Williams said the intent is to use input from a current round of Plan Santa Barbara community workshops to build the temporary ordinance.

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