Although its Vital Mission Plan development project was approved last October in a 3-2 vote by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is facing another hurdle in the approval process.
Three community groups have filed separate appeals against the commission’s decision, requiring review by the Board of Supervisors, which will hear the appeals on Tuesday. While county staff has recommended denial of the appeals, the appellants — citing fire evacuation routes from the canyon as well as impacts to Chumash archaeological sites — have chimed in once again to ask that the garden’s leadership scale back the project.
Even before the Jesusita Fire blazed through Santa Barbara’s foothills last year, the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, located along the creek in Mission Canyon, was a focus of public attention and controversy. In trying to push forward a plan to make several major changes to the garden, its management ran up against stiff opposition from Mission Canyon residents who felt the proposal was too grandiose for a canyon with such limited access.
The garden was issued a stop work order in 2008 by the county when it commenced grading work for the so-called Meadow Terrace — a meeting area that the county’s Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission ruled was part of a 23-acre part of the property listed as a historic landmark. The Board of Supervisors upheld the HLAC’s decision, but the garden’s administration responded by suing both the HLAC and the supervisors. The matter remains in litigation.
The garden’s proposal eventually moved forward, although the Planning Commission trimmed it down a bit by imposing a set of conditions to the approval. Although a kiosk included in the plan was denied, the commission made a provision for events to be held at the garden, allowing an annual 1.8 percent increase in attendance, to be capped at 50 percent growth, or 160,000 visitors annually. The commission also imposed limitations about the amount of the property designated for trail use.
For the project’s opponents, the limitations weren’t enough.
“The proposal that the garden has put forward is out of scale with the canyon,” said Marc Chytilo, an attorney representing Friends of Mission Canyon, one of the three appellants. “This project was designed without taking into consideration the constraints of being in Mission Canyon. There’s only one way in and out.”
Chytilo said that many of the residents he has spoken with said that during last year’s fire, it took an inordinate amount of time for traffic to move out of the canyon as the blaze was pushed down from the ridge by high winds, and he compared Mission Canyon’s road layout to that of a section of Oakland, where 25 people died in their cars as a conflagration tore through the area in 1991. He said many people also have expressed concern about construction that he said would take nearly a decade to complete.
The garden’s staff members have contended that their development proposal would not only repair damage caused by the Jesusita Fire, but would include improvements — fire-resistant, sprinkler-topped buildings, a fire engine turnaround and vegetation management — that would make the canyon safer during fires.
Nancy Johnson, the garden’s vice president of marketing and government relations, said a concerted effort has been made to keep the garden’s plans in line with the canyon’s size.
“We could technically have as many people at the garden as we choose, but we put caps on use based on the science of the fire protection plan,” she said, referencing a study commissioned by the county as part of the project’s environmental impact report. “The Vital Mission Plan makes the garden safer and, by extension, the whole of Mission Canyon. I think we all want to be safer.”
Chytilo maintains that garden management has levied an aggressive campaign against the project’s opponents, taking attention away from the fire safety issue.
“They’ve spared no expense in trying to attack us,” he said. “When a nonprofit sues the county government, it reflects that it’s out of touch with the needs of the community.”
First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal, whose district includes Mission Canyon, said his office has received a lot of comments regarding the Vital Mission Plan, but that support and opposition of the project have been fairly evenly divided.
“There’s a lot of discretion by the Board of Supervisors to make sense of all the details, and hopefully we’ll come out with something that’s a win-win,” he said, adding that although the issue has been knocked about for years, it is likely to reach some sort of conclusion at Tuesday’s hearing. “I hope the community comes out and listens closely to what’s being said, and I hope the supervisors listen closely, too.”
Whatever the outcome, a sizable group of people is expected to show up for Tuesday’s hearing, which will begin at 9 a.m. in the board hearing room on the fourth floor of the County Administration Building, 105 E. Anapamu St. in Santa Barbara. However, county officials said the appeals over the Botanic Garden aren’t likely to be heard until the afternoon, after the lunch recess.
— Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.