A report detailing the city staff’s “draft policy preferences” on how to update Santa Barbara’s General Plan for development in the next 20 years raised the ire of some slow-growth advocates on Thursday, but it seemed to please advocates of higher downtown density and affordable housing.

The 70-page report, which has been approved by the Planning Commission, is part of a years-long process known as Plan Santa Barbara to update the General Plan. The General Plan is not so much a set of laws as it is the guiding document city leaders look to when crafting specific ordinances on land use, housing, transportation, environmental stewardship, city services and the like.

The slow-growthers on Thursday included members of neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations such as the League of Women Voters and the Citizens Planning Association. They say the city is erring too far on the side of growth, thereby forsaking many of the qualities that make Santa Barbara special: the mountain views, the historic buildings, small-town charm and picturesque neighborhoods.

On Thursday, members of this camp said the discussions to date have left them feeling marginalized.

“We are concerned about which parts of the public input have found their way into the plan, and which may have been omitted,” Connie Hannah of the League of Women Voters said.

The other camp included the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, affordable housing activists, pedestrian-safety advocates and several architects. Most members of this group tend to believe in the concept of so-called smart growth, or the idea that urban areas should increase densities near transit centers and in downtowns and discourage car use. They also tend to believe that Santa Barbara should usher in more affordable units to ameliorate, among other things, the congestion caused by commuters who can’t afford to live here.

“I am immensely proud of the sustainability framework that you have here,” local architect Brian Cearnal told the council. “We’ve got 12,000 or some people coming into work here, and in an ideal world, those folks, I believe, would be living closer to where they work.”

Thursday’s meeting was held mostly for the purpose of hearing comments from the public. On Tuesday, the council will decide whether to pull the trigger for the chosen consultant company, Amec, to begin the environmental review process.

The first version of the city’s General Plan was completed in 1964. It came after Santa Barbara, like many U.S. cities, began to witness a population boom. Since 1964, the General Plan has been fine-tuned three or four times. But the ongoing Plan Santa Barbara process amounts to its first major update. Officials hope to have it done by 2010.

On Thursday, smart-growth proponents applauded the report’s call for higher downtown densities, car-free zones, more bike lanes, the clustering of commercial and residential buildings near transit stops and more affordable housing.

“We’re very supportive of the policy recommendation, and in particular the emphasis on making affordable housing for all income levels a priority,” said Debbie Cox Bultan of the Coastal Housing Coalition.

Bultan said that 61 percent of the employees represented by her organization, or 1,800 people, were willing to write a letter to the city in support of workforce housing, and 700 were willing to come to the council to speak in favor of it.

Slow-growth proponents took umbrage with the proposal’s deference for smart-growth philosophy.

“We do not believe in a community like Santa Barbara, people will get out of their cars, simply because alternative transit is available,” said Jean Holmes of the Allied Neighborhoods Association. “That’s particularly true of people in high-end condos.”

Slow-growth proponents also objected to the staff’s suggestion to altar the boundaries of the historic downtown district, known as El Pueblo Viejo. The report calls for keeping the district intact for landmark historic areas such as the Mission and the Presidio, but to create a new “downtown design” district for the remainder of the area. 

“The intent of the boundaries is not only to protect existing historic resources, but to continue the existence of Santa Barbara’s famed architectural styles — the styles that relate directly to our heritage,” said Mary Louise Days of the Citizens Planning Association. 

But the suggestion that prompted the strongest negative reaction from a neighborhood group was one that would encourage homeowners in the affluent Upper East neighborhood to build secondary homes — or “granny units” — on their properties. (The area is bounded by Valerio, Laguna, Constance and State streets.)

“The sleeping Upper East side has finally awoken,” said Fred Sweeney of the Upper East Association, showing the projected image of a city map showing where the secondary units would be most encouraged. “The association, in fact, at its last meeting has now a dozen-plus new board members as a result of looking at that particular document.”

Sweeney said a relaxation of a current restriction on such units could pave the way for up to 200 more dwellings in the area.

“Upper East residents feel very strongly that implementation of that in its fullest extent would really change the character and nature of the Upper East side,” he said.

Joan Livingston, another member of the association, invoked Pearl Chase, a historic local figure who is widely credited for setting the tone for the character of Santa Barbara in the 1920s.

“I think she made Santa Barbara into what it is because she knew how to say no,” Livingston said. “We’re really saying no to changes. … Is the Upper East asking for special treatment? Perhaps so, because it’s a special area.”

After the meeting, city planner John Ledbetter said the neighborhood was selected because of its proximity to State Street.

“People could live in secondary units and not have a car, ride their bike downtown, take the bus to UCSB,” he said, adding that many residents have expressed support for the idea of secondary units at workshops the city has held on Plan Santa Barbara.

The process of updating the General Plan is happening now largely because a 20-year-old voter-approved law is set to expire at the end of 2009. Measure E was passed in 1989 to restrict commercial development, thereby placing limits on the number of jobs – and potential commuters – the city can take in. Specifically, the measure restricted non-residential growth to 3 million square feet until 2010; thus far, only half of that has been allocated.

City leaders need to determine not only whether to continue those restrictions and by how much, but also which kinds of commercial uses to encourage, and where to put them.

Another major piece of the puzzle is how to deal with population growth.

After a gradual, decades-long climb, Santa Barbara’s official population peaked at 90,600 in 2002, and by last year had fallen to 89,400, according to the state Department of Finance.

Still, state law requires cities to show how they can meet demand for future growth.

The city currently has 37,500 dwellings—that is, houses, condos, mobile homes and apartment units, with 1,300 more in the pipeline. The General Plan currently says the city has room for about 40,000 dwellings. By those numbers, the city is less than 1,000 residences away from “buildout.”

But a few months ago, it became known to the city that state law is requiring it to make room for about 4,400 more. Not long after, city staff members put their zoning maps under a microscope and were surprised to see that, according to local zoning laws, Santa Barbara has space for up to 7,000 more dwellings.

Now the question to be studied in the environmental report is how many of those should be built in the next 20 years. The consultant is expected to study a range of possibilities, from 2,000 to 7,000.

Write to rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.