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Ordinance Committee Wrestles with Santa Barbara’s Building Heights

City's supplemental measure on caps would apply only to certain structures, but appears to draw vigorous opposition.

The debate over Santa Barbara’s building heights continued Tuesday during an Ordinance Committee meeting at which officials and the public voiced concerns over ballot measures that might appear in November. The city has pondered how it should respond to a citizen’s initiative that garnered 11,000 signatures in support of capping Santa Barbara building heights. The group behind the initiative, Save El Pueblo Viejo, wants to see heights capped at 40 feet in the historic core of Santa Barbara and at 45 feet elsewhere. The group contends such limits are needed to rein in developers and preserve the character of the city, whose current policy allows heights of up to 60 feet.

The last meeting on building heights had City Council and Planning Commission members debating whether to put a competing measure on the ballot, which would allow the 60-foot limit to be considered in the case of rental projects, those of community priority status and affordable housing. Because there was little consensus between members, city staff delivered a plan Tuesday that would add a supplemental charter measure to the SEPV measure.

This means that if the Save El Pueblo Viejo voter initiative passes in November, the supplemental measure from the city would keep height exceptions for the projects approved, but only if they fall under community priority, rentals or affordable housing.

During public comment, more people spoke against a city supplemental measure than in support of it, on both sides of the issue.

“It allows height exemption for any kind of community priority project, which can clearly mean anything that any city council member wants,” said Connie Hannah, speaking for the League of Women Voters, which supports SEPV. It would undermine the initiative process, she said.

Former Planning Commissioner Bill Mahan conjured some City Council history as he spoke to the Ordinance Committee. He said that on March 25, 1969, the council voted to approve two nine-story buildings where Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens are today, in opposition to the recommendations of the Planning Commission at that time. Consequently, he said, Pearl Chase led a group that amended the charter to take power away from city councils. He challenged the committee to look at what their legacies would be.

“They were forgotten, but what they did has never been forgotten and that has been their legacy,” he said. “Please, please don’t do this.”

Michael Self of Santa Barbara Safe Streets also spoke, noting that adding a supplemental measure “is the latest example of you not being able to listen to the desire of the residents.” Self called it a political maneuver to satiate developers and special interests.

Several people, in favor of the city’s charter amendment to keep height requirements flexible and on the ballot, also spoke against the supplemental measure.

Mickey Flacks, speaking for Santa Barbara for All, encouraged the committee not to approve anything supplemental. Flacks said she’s tried to meet with SEPV to talk through a compromise, but to no avail.

“They’ve decided that any exception, for any purpose is anathema and cannot be allowed on the ballot,” she said.

The process of a voter-led initiative signals a level of mistrust in government, Flacks said, one she hasn’t seen in the community for a long time. She also encouraged ordinance members to look forward.

“It’s the future that’s at stake, not what happened at Chapala One or Chapala Two,” she said, “but what might happen in the next 40 or 50 years.”

Lisa Plowman, planning manager for Peikert Group Architects, said the SEPV initiative had “hijacked” the General Plan process and that “ballot-box planning” wasn’t a good idea.

“I’m out in the community, too, but I’m getting different information,” she said. “Maybe it’s generational, I don’t know. The older generation is looking to the past, and some of the younger generation are really thinking about sustainability and the future.”

After public comment, committee member and Councilman Das Williams said he did not appreciate being compared to the earlier council that had approved the large buildings back in the 1960s.

“I really feel like the tone of this debate has gotten to ridiculous proportions,” he said. “I never voted for these projects; in fact, no one on the council voted for these projects.”

Williams said he supported the supplemental charter, and that it was a compromise from putting a competing city measure on the ballot.

Another committee member, Councilman Dale Francisco, voiced his opposition.

“The so-called supplemental to me is just a repackaging,” he said. “It’s basically the same thing, and I don’t support it because I don’t think the council should be involved in this sort of thing.”

Francisco said that if enough people had gathered together to put it on the ballot, then an up-or-down vote would be sufficient. He did not support an alternative or a supplement and abstained from voting on the issue.

Committee member and Councilman Grant House said he’s concerned with the oversimplification of the issue that’s been proposed by the initiative. House reminded the committee that the supplemental measure was an idea that came from former Mayor Sheila Lodge, who supports SEPV, and has since said the supplemental approach wasn’t a good idea. House said a separate ballot issue would be the best choice.

Williams and House agreed to continue discussion on the issue during next week’s Ordinance Committee meeting. The issue is projected to go before the City Council on March 24.

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