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County Supervisors Opt to Continue Botanic Garden Hearing

Board will resume discussion of the Vital Mission Plan on May 18

More than 150 people crowded into the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors hearing room Tuesday, each intent on sharing his or her position on the impending fate of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

So many people turned in speaker slips — after lengthy presentations by county staff, representatives from the garden and by each of the three appellants to the Planning Commission’s approval of the garden’s expansion project — that the board elected to continue the matter until May 18.

Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf, the board chairwoman, said she expects that the board then will dedicate most of the day to the issue.

The Botanic Garden’s Vital Mission Plan has been in the works for the better part of a decade, but last year’s Jesusita Fire — which destroyed some of the garden’s land and buildings — added urgency to garden administrators’ drive to get the project going.

Ed Schneider, who has been at the helm of the garden for the past 18 years, said Tuesday that his staff turned in a petition to the county with 12,000 signatures recorded in support of the Vital Mission Plan.

“The plan actually decreases our rights to use this property,” said Schneider, who has been adamant that the garden is out of building space for specimen collections, classrooms and staff. He and his supporters maintain that providing more classroom and event facilities are essential to the continued success of the garden at 1212 Mission Canyon Road.

“These are slum conditions and are not appropriate for the education of our young people,” Schneider said of the current classroom situation.

Opponents of the project, backing up claims of the three groups that appealed approval of the plan — the Mission Canyon Association, Friends of Mission Canyon, and Frank Arrendondo, a cultural resource preservationist and representative for Friends of Xana’yan — want it scaled back because of Mission Canyon’s limited road access.

The Jesusita Fire, which in 20 minutes blazed from the top of Spyglass Ridge, at the top of the canyon, through the Botanic Garden, prompted many to question the wisdom of allowing more people to congregate in an already congested area. The Mission Canyon Association called for a maximum occupancy limit for the canyon.

“I was overcome with fear (when the fire came through), not knowing if we’d get out of there alive,” Tunnel Road resident Ginger Sledge said. “I find it unjust that we must argue for our basic safety.”

Other residents said they wouldn’t mind the garden improving its facilities, but would prefer if fewer people were allowed into the canyon at once. Although garden administrators said the project approved by the Planning Commission was already “bare bones” compared with what they said it needed, Wolf said she wanted to hear more information about the feasibility of reducing the current 25,000-square-foot building plan to 16,000 square feet.

Essentially, the controversy over the fate of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden appeared to stem from concern over the future economic viability of what by all accounts is a valuable community and national educational resource, and the fear of many of the canyon’s residents that the increase in human traffic could pose a threat to safe evacuation in case of wildfire.

“When you do have to evacuate during a fire, it’s hot, it’s windy, it’s smoky, there’s confusion and pandemonium, and that’s when two cars can crash and block the roadway,” said attorney Marc Chytilo, who is representing Friends of Mission Canyon, comparing Mission Canyon to a section of the Oakland Hills in which 25 people died in their cars while trying to escape a 1991 wildfire.

“We’re before you today because we’re simply out of space,” said Schneider, becoming emotional as he related losing his home of 18 years in the Jesusita Fire. “It’s very difficult to stand here and be accused of not being concerned about fire safety.”

Noozhawk staff writer Ben Preston can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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