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Judge Throws Cold Water on Montecito Fire Station Plan

The Montecito Fire Protection District has to start over with its environmental review documents for a third fire station on East Valley Road, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court judge ruled this week.

The district’s final environmental impact report “failed to proceed in a manner required by the California Environmental Quality Act,” Judge Thomas Anderle wrote in a tentative ruling.

The fire district now must vacate approval of the project and the final EIR, and prepare and circulate a “legally adequate” one before moving forward.

Fire district officials have had a vision for a third station for decades, and the proposed location at 2500 East Valley Road is 2.5 acres of a 76.87-acre parcel, which is part of the larger Rancho San Carlos.

Although the land is zoned residential, it’s currently being used as a lemon orchard.

“The district seems to make a no-harm, no-foul argument, since it in several place in the EIR noted that the project would eliminate 2.5 acres of productive orchard,” Anderle wrote. “The semi-rural, semi-agrarian nature of the Montecito community is highly prized by many of its residents. In the interests of full disclosure, both the direct and indirect impacts on agricultural resources should have been evaluated in the review documents. The public was entitled to a proper evaluation, based upon direct and current impacts, rather than being led to believe that full build-out of the Rancho San Carlos property was a fait accompli which need not even be discussed in the EIR.”

Another station would cut down on response times — which are above five minutes for that eastern side of the fire district — and provide a place for training and more equipment storage, according to the fire district.

Chief Chip Hickman has said the proposed site is ideal because of its size, location and the fact that it has very few neighbors close by.

A 2007 site study examined 14 possible sites, but only two areas on Jackson Ranch met the criteria, he has said.

“We are disappointed in the ruling, but any actions or decisions on how the district proceeds with the Station Three Project will be determined by the fire district’s Board of Directors,” spokeswoman Geri Ventura said.

The board previously withdrew the application for county approval, pending the outcome of this lawsuit.

The issue will be addressed at the next regular meeting May 20, she added.

The lawsuit against the project was filed by the Montecito Agricultural Foundation, an entity started by property owners of the land across the street from the proposed site and represented by environmental attorney Marc Chytilo.

MAF released a statement Tuesday in response to Anderle’s ruling in its favor. The ruling made it clear that the fire district didn’t analyze the impacts to existing agriculture, it said.

“The fire district and their consultants wanted to pretend that there were already houses on the site instead of highly productive agricultural orchards, when they performed their studies,” MAF member Brian Reekie said in a statement. “I and other local residents tried to bring our concerns about the deficiencies in the environmental review to the prior fire board’s attention prior to their approval of the location for a third fire station, but they just would not listen. We had no other choice.”

MAF president Denise Allec said the ruling will allow the new board and community “to carefully evaluate the needs of the district, and present an appropriate and affordable solution.”

The fire district argued to the court that the petitioner is using this lawsuit to prevent the fire station being built across from the East Valley Road property owned by the Pines Trust, but Anderle said that issue is irrelevant to the case at hand.

“The court is not, and legally cannot be, concerned with the motivation of the petitioner in filing this CEQA challenge,” he said. “It is not the job of the court to evaluate whether a project subject to CEQA review should or should not be pursued.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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