Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Veronica Meadows survives round two


In déjà vu-inspiring fashion, a 25-unit development in the Las Positas Valley earned the support of Santa Barbara city leaders on a 5-2 vote Tuesday evening, repeating an earlier decision to give it the green light.
Originally approved in 2006 by the City Council, the project went through litigation in Superior Court last year, where a judge ruled the city had inadequately examined environmental issues and ordered approvals to be rescinded.
After giving the environmental review process another shot, city leaders returned with the same result, essentially finding the proposed project, known as Veronica Meadows, to be the best option studied.

While project opponents — the Citizens Planning Association and Urban Creeks Council, among others — are still deciding whether to litigate the council’s latest decision, those who voted in opposition have little doubt.
“We going to get sued and we’re going to lose,” said Councilmember Das Williams, who joined Councilmember Helene Schneider in dissent. “…I look forward to the next round of this pain going on.”
The project in question has existed in one form or another since 1999, when developer Mark Lee first approached the city with a proposal to build homes on land across Las Positas Road from Elings Park and alongside Arroyo Burro Creek.
Plans involve annexing 50 acres of county land and constructing 25 single-family homes — two of which would be affordable to upper middle-income buyers — on approximately 15 acres of the parcel.
The remainder of the annexed land would be dedicated open space. The project would also involve creek stabilization and restoration efforts, along with a multi-use pathway connecting to nearby Alan Road.
Therein exists the most contentious issue of the project — a proposal to build a public bridge across Arroyo Burro Creek to connect Elings Park with the pathway and provide vehicular access to the homes.
Those in favor of the bridge argue it will greatly improve pedestrian and bicycle access to popular Arroyo Burro Beach by eliminating the need to travel along Las Positas Road, characterized as a very dangerous roadway for walkers and bikers.
“This whole area is dangerous for youth and dangerous for adults and dangerous for anybody that’s trying to get down to the beach,” Councilmember Roger Horton said.
Opponents, however, criticize the bridge as far too harmful to the creek habitat and the overall environmental sensitivity of the parcel, citing an immitigable Class 1 impact directly related to the bridge in the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR).
After working through numerous iterations of city meetings, the project earned approval in December 2006 with Schneider and Williams again casting the dissenting votes.
Opponents filed suit and Superior Court Judge Thomas Anderle found the city had failed to follow California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines when considering the environmental impacts of the project.
Specifically, city project planner Allison DeBusk explained during Tuesday’s hearing, the city failed to explicitly state that an alternative project studied in the EIR was infeasible.
That alternative involves eliminating the bridge concept and routing all traffic through Alan Road, a proposal that had many residents of the quiet street up in arms. In addition, the project would be reduced to 15 larger units, none with an affordability component.
Marc Chytilo, an attorney representing the opposition, agued that the city can’t ignore the Alan Road alternative, which he characterized as a feasible alternative that mitigates Class 1 impacts.
He went on to contest that the city “engaged in sophistry” by manipulating the EIR process to avoid presenting other environmentally superior alternatives.
Steve Amerikaner, representing the developer, agreed the Alan Road alternative will eliminate the environmental impact of the bridge, but noted it creates a worsened noise impact and a Class 1 traffic impact at Las Positas Road and Cliff Drive.
“You can reject an alternative that has a Class 1 impact on that ground alone,” he said.
Williams sided with Chytilo’s argument that the city simply didn’t study all the options, stating that the applicant simply set up a worse idea with the Alan Road alternative to make his proposal look better.
Schneider agreed, adding that she could not find in favor of the proposed project or the Alan Road alternative.
“I voted no once, I voted no twice, I voted no three times,” she said, adding that the right solution is “not an either-or, but a neither.”
But firm opposition to the project among city leaders ended there. Horton, citing his concerns with public safety and circulation, said mitigating those issues with a bridge and pathway to the beach is an important factor and works for him.
Councilmember Dale Francisco, seen as a potential swing vote as the newest member of the council who won his seat after the initial 2006 approval, described the project as reasonable.
“Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I have the idea that in the long run this parcel will be developed for residential housing,” he said. “…This [plan] seems, to me, relatively compact.”
Mayor Marty Blum, in addition to citing her support for the proposal, also came back with a strongly worded reply to Chytilo’s suggestion that city planners have tainted the process.
“Yes, mistakes have been made over the years,” she said. “But we usually own up to them and correct them. I don’t think there is any mischief or manipulation or mismanagement in the planning department.”
Noting the lengthy review process that has revised and reshaped the project, Councilmember Grant House said he finds the Alan Road option infeasible and can give the 25-unit proposal a “finding of overriding consideration” required by CEQA.
And in perhaps the most technical of arguments made Tuesday evening, Councilmember Iya Falcone agreed with House and provided legal justification to back it up.
“A finding of infeasibility of Alan Road is possible because of the dueling Class 1 impacts,” she said. “You have two infeasible or Class 1-impacted projects.”
By weighing the overall community benefits of the proposed development, Falcone said she could find Alan Road infeasible.
“Because of the dueling Class 1 impacts and my finding that Alan Road is the infeasible alternative, I will support the project as proposed,” she said. “This is not easy for me. … I’m grounded in what I think is a correct interpretation of the law.”
Williams managed to get in one last argument in the closing minutes of the lengthy hearing, taking issue with his colleagues' interpretation of CEQA guidelines.
“I really detect a very disturbing and, I think, misplaced confidence in the city’s total discretion in matters of CEQA,” he said. “Feasibility and the environmentally beneficial alternative is not what we decide it is.”
Chytilo, who has up to 30 days from final approval to file a legal challenge should opponents choose to do so, agreed with Williams.
“Obviously we’re disappointed with the council’s actions,” he said. “I think Das Williams characterized it well when he said there is an environmentally preferred alternative, we just haven’t found it.”

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