The debate over Santa Barbara’s building heights continues to heat up, with five advocates of a November ballot measure seeking to lower building heights now facing a lawsuit by a local architect.
Architect Brian Hofer filed a writ of mandate Friday against Bill Mahan, Sue Adams, Connie Hannah, Frank Banales and Jeanne Graffy, after their names were published in an “Argument in Favor of Measure B” for November’s voter registration guide. City Clerk Jim Armstrong is also listed as a respondent.
The lawsuit alleges that they included language in their statement that “is inaccurate and misleading.”
If approved, Measure B would require that buildings in the historic downtown not exceed 40 feet, and that other buildings in commercial areas not exceed 45 feet. The current height limit allowed by the city charter is 60 feet.
The main complaint of the lawsuit is the use of the word “high rise,” which the proponents of Measure B used four times in their statement. According to the writ, the California Building Code, used by the city, defines a high rise as any building that is 75 feet or higher.
“Under the existing height restriction of 60 feet, no high-rise buildings are permitted in the city,” the statement read.
Hofer, reached by phone Monday, did not comment on the lawsuit except to briefly explain the core of the dispute.
“It’s the language of the ballot measure we have issues with, and that’s what the legal document will spell out,” he said, referring further questions to his attorney, Jonathan Miller.
“The purpose of this lawsuit is singular in nature,” Miller said. “My client simply seeks to ensure the Voter Information Guide conforms to California Elections Code Section 13313 and does not contain information that is false, misleading or inconsistent. He believes the community is best served by truthful and accurate information, and when provided with this information, can make an educated choice regarding the ballot measure.”
Miller said a change in language would be enough to satisfy the suit, and that he expects the court to go forward in the next few weeks with the case.
Mahan, among those listed in the lawsuit, said that when the group drafted the language for the ballot, an attorney was present, as well as two dictionaries.
“When we wrote the argument, we had two dictionaries and we looked up the word ‘high rise,’ and in both it says a building of many stories where the use of elevators is required,” he said.
Mahan said he is working with a lawyer to represent the group, and added that he and his camp are calling up a definition from yourdictionary.com to support their argument.
“Buildings qualify as high rise relative to their locations,” he said. “For example, a high rise in Lincoln, Neb., is not going to be the same as a high rise in New York City. They’re thinking of Santa Barbara as they would New York City.”
In addition to the eight-page complaint made by Hofer, his attorneys served Mahan and the others with the entire city charter and uniform building code.
Mahan, a retired architect, calls the definition “obscure.”
“We are not going to be intimidated by that,” he said. “We are not going to let them deceive the voters. ... We will go to court to fight for our freedom of speech. ... It’s obsolete for this community It doesn’t work for Santa Barbara or Carmel or Nantucket or all of these communities that are trying to protect their character.”
Hannah said she was on the steering committee that was directly involved with the language of the initiative, unlike the other four people named in the lawsuit. Hannah said she felt they were trying to pick out people who were well known in their areas of expertise and who would have some influence.
Adams is the board president of the Pearl Chase Society, a group dedicated to Santa Barbara’s historic preservation. Hannah is active with the League of Women Voters of Santa Barbara, Banales is executive director of Zona Seca and Graffy is a former planning commissioner, city councilwoman and county supervisor.
“It seems pretty trivial to us, but we’re prepared to meet with them,” said Hannah, adding that the court will set a hearing date soon because the city has told the group the ballot measures are scheduled to go to print in early September.
“The term ‘high rise’ has all kinds of different meanings,” she said. “Usually, it’s in relation to something. If it’s a two-story building, a four-story is a high rise. I think that it’s a term that the court will have to decide and that’s OK with us.”
At the other end of the spectrum is Debbie Cox Bultan, who leads the “No on Measure B” Coalition. She said the group echoes the claims that the statements in the proposed charter amendment are “false and misleading.”
“The language is inflammatory,” she said. “High rises can’t be built in Santa Barbara.”
A coalition statement read: “We are pleased that a local expert with unsurpassed qualifications has stepped up and challenged the misrepresentations used by the proponents of Measure B. The community debate about our future is not and has never been about so-called ‘high-rise’ development. This detracts from the real conversation that should be happening about how we can best preserve our community character, protect our environment and provide housing for working families.”
Groups such as the Community Environmental Council, the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation and PUEBLO have stated their opposition to the initiative, even though Bultan said those groups had not spoken specifically about the lawsuit and the term “high rise.”
Mahan said he knows Hofer well and that the lawsuit was unexpected. “I saw him on Wednesday, and I wasn’t expecting to be sued on Friday,” he said, adding that he has no hard feelings toward him.
Still, he’s sure about the language of Measure B.
“We are not going to yield to this,” he said.