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Santa Barbara Council Backs Veronica Meadows — Again

Despite judge's ruling, proposed 25-home Las Positas development wins 5-2 vote. Opponents are expected to sue.

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A key issue holding up the Veronica Meadows project is a proposed access bridge to the development in Las Positas Canyon. The creek crossing would be located off Las Positas Road, across from the entrance to Elings Park. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

In what’s beginning to resemble a game of ping-pong, the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday approved — for the second time in a year and a half — the development of 25 single-family homes in Las Positas Valley, despite a judge’s ruling in December revoking the earlier approval.

The 5-2 decision most likely means that opponents of what is called the Veronica Meadows project will take the matter back to court.

“I think because (of the decision) we’re going to get sued, and we’re going to lose,” Councilman Das Williams after Tuesday night’s vote. Williams, along with Councilwoman Helene Schneider, voted against the project.

 


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The plan, which over the course of eight years has wound up pitting neighbors against environmentalists, is to build most of the two-story homes on 15 acres of brushy green space across from Elings Park. In return, developer Mark Lee would spend his own money to restore the nearby Arroyo Burro Creek, preserve open space and bring bicycle and hiking trails to the area.

Many of the neighbors like the plan, as the trails would allow them access to Arroyo Burro Beach without having to get in their cars or walk along the shoulder of fast-moving Las Positas Road. Of the 22 people who spoke to the council about the project, 13 were favor of it, most of them neighbors.

Thirty-eight-year Hidden Valley resident Dennis Peterson said for him the project will enhance the safety of his neighborhood.

“I would sure like to get off that road,” he said, referring to Las Positas. “I’m afraid I’m going to get hit someday, and that path would be a godsend.”

Neighbor Ken Sterling prefaced his comments in favor of the project by saying he is an environmentally conscious person who drove a Prius “before it was cool and fashionable.”

“My grandfather told me something wise: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said.

But the environmentalists who successfully sued the city blasted the project on several fronts, saying it is too much development for such an environmentally sensitive area. They also say the project’s considerable distance from downtown would encourage more car travel.

“This is the biggest example of dumb growth the city has deliberated in decades,” said planning activist David Pritchett.

Specifically at issue was Lee’s proposal to build a bridge over the creek leading into the development. In an official study known as an environmental impact report, a biologist decided that the bridge — which would be located off Las Positas Road, directly across the street from the entrance to Elings Park — would impose a significant negative impact on the creek habitat.

The City Council nonetheless approved the project in December 2006, deciding that the promised benefits to the public and environment outweighed the negatives. (City officials also cited how another expert had questioned the EIR findings.)  A month after the approval, the Citizens Planning Association filed suit against Lee and the city.

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Marc Chytilo, an attorney for the Citizens Planning Association, makes the group’s case against the Veronica Meadows project during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. (Rob Kuznia photo / Noozhawk)

Last December, Superior Court Judge Judge Thomas Anderle ruled in favor of the opponents. In his highly technical ruling, he said the project violated the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Specifically, when biologists find that a proposed development will potentially have a certain high degree of impact on the environment (known as a “Class 1 Impact”), agencies must explore other options.

On Tuesday, city staff presented a revised EIR to the council that officially considered another — the other — option. In this one, there’d be no bridge, and therefore only one way in and out of the development: by driving to the end of Las Positas Road and up the currently quiet Alan Road.

The revised EIR found that this option, too, was a Class 1 Impact.

On Tuesday, this left the City Council in the position of deciding on the lesser of two evils. However, it also had the option to just say no outright — a position strenuously advocated by Williams and Schneider.

Adding an element of political intrigue, Tuesday’s vote seemed to hinge on one man: new Councilman Dale Francisco.

Because the project involves annexing what is now Santa Barbara County land, passage requires a supermajority five out of seven votes. When the project passed the first time, it was a 5-2 vote, again with Williams and Schneider dissenting. In November, Francisco unseated Councilman Brian Barnwell, and so on Tuesday all eyes were on him.

Francisco, who campaigned on a slow-growth ticket, on Tuesday said he believes the proposed Veronica Meadows project is reasonable.

“Maybe I’m just being cynical, but I have the idea in the long run it’s more likely for this to be developed for residential development than the city acquiring it for a park,” he said, adding that the project doesn’t seem very dense in comparison to others in the pipeline nearby.

The other council members held firm to their earlier convictions.

Mayor Marty Blum said she supports the project with the bridge largely because something needs to be done about the dangers of Las Positas Road. She also objected to an argument stating that the city should try to decipher how scaled-down the project could be and still be economically feasible.

“I don’t like looking at other people’s checkbooks,” she said.

Speaking on behalf of the Citizens Planning Association, executive director Naomi Kovacs said she understands the position of the neighbors. But she added that they didn’t seem keen on working collaboratively with her organization.

“We tried to meet with them and were dis-invited,” she said.

She also pointedly reminded the council of the judge’s decision.

“Adherence to the law is why CPA filed and won the lawsuit,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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