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Local News

Building-Height Initiative a Step Closer to Spot on Ballot

Slow-growth advocates collect nearly twice the number of required signatures. It could take up to a month for the city clerk to verify the signatures.

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Bill Mahan, chairman of Save El Pueblo Viego, addresses supporters outside City Hall on Friday after the group submitted signatures for a ballot initiative that would significantly lower building-height limits in Santa Barbara. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

To the chagrin of at least one Santa Barbara City Council member, a coalition of slow-growth advocates submitted signatures Friday to put an initiative on the November ballot that would significantly lower building-height limits in Santa Barbara.

Standing amid a throng of about 30 coalition members on the steps of City Hall, Bill Mahan, chairman of the organization Save El Pueblo Viejo, said they had gathered 11,200 signatures. To qualify for the ballot, the group needs 6,480 credible signatures. Mahan said it could take up to a month for the city clerk to verify all of the names.

As it stands now, buildings in the commercial zones of Santa Barbara can be 60 feet high; the initiative calls for lowering the limit to 40 feet in the historic downtown area and 45 feet in the rest of the city.

“We feel very, very strongly that the charm and the character of Santa Barbara … are in danger,” said Mahan, a former planning commissioner. “We’re in danger of losing those qualities because of big buildings.”

The topic of building heights has emerged as a divisive debate as a spate of tall and bulky condominium complexes — most notably on Chapala Street — has sprung up in the past couple of years. Some believe that these buildings mark the beginning of the end of the city’s low-slung cosmopolitan distinctiveness.

However, affordable housing advocates fear that the proposed initiative would stifle development and produce the unintended consequence of further squeezing out the middle class, who are reportedly moving out of the city because of the out-of-reach cost of housing.

Friday’s event seemed to clash with a similar news conference at the same location in April, when an improbable coalition of slow-growth advocates and affordable-housing activists announced they had struck an accord on height limits and affordable housing.

That coalition, led by Santa Barbara Councilman Das Williams, included many of the same slow-growth advocates, such as Mahan and former Mayor Sheila Lodge. The group had unveiled a proposed interim ordinance that would, for example, keep the proposed 40- and 45-foot height limits, but grant exceptions to developers who went well above and beyond standards for including affordable units. Such developers would be awarded with 12 extra feet. 

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Santa Barbara clerk service manager Cyndi Rodriguez prepares to unwrap signature petitions for the building-heights initiative to begin the preliminary count. (Starla Lago photo)
On Friday, Councilman Das Williams said he was disappointed. “I’m saddened by the fact that they felt like they needed to continue with this overly simplistic measure,” he said. “I don’t think it will be in the best long-term interest of the citizens of Santa Barbara to pass it. But I do understand there is a legitimate concern about size, bulk and scale.”

However, he added, “The issue of size, bulk, scale and affordable housing cannot all be addressed by height.”

Williams’ compromise coalition formed shortly after Mahan started collecting signatures. It began to fall apart when Mahan refused to stop collecting signatures. At the time, the group had gathered about 3,000.

“It came into my heart that each one of those signatures is like a sacred trust, and we couldn’t just throw them away,” Mahan said Friday. “I think it’s fine for the City Council to put out an alternative initiative if it wants to. The people, then, could make the choice. This is all about the people making the choice.”

Meanwhile, the interim City Council ordinance isn’t dead. On Tuesday, it will be discussed by the city Ordinance Committee. Hypothetically, however, if both passed, the ballot initiative would trump the city ordinance, because the ballot initiative is an attempt to amend the city’s charter, which is akin to a local constitution, Mahan said.

Mahan added that he believes that the culprit in the affordable-housing debate isn’t building height but ceiling height. The ceilings in some of the new luxury condos reach heights of 13 feet, he said. If builders stuck to 8 feet, they could get more units inside smaller developments.

In addition to Mahan’s Save El Pueblo Viejo, four other groups —  the League of Women Voters, the Citizens Planning Association, the Allied Neighborhoods Association and the Pearl Chase Society — are sponsoring the proposed ballot measure. During the course of the campaign, the group raised and spent about $35,000. 

Representatives from some of the groups also chimed in on the affordable-housing question.

“This is a place where everyone wants to come and live,” said Joe Rution of Allied Neighborhoods Association. “And you build these buildings, it brings more people here, people compete for the buildings. They can’t be affordable, unless you’re price-restricting them. …You just get more people paying more money, and more units and more population.” 

Also among the groups on the steps of City Hall on Friday were Mayor Marty Blum and newly elected Councilman Dale Francisco, who unseated incumbent Brian Barnwell in the last year’s election.

“This is one of the few ways the general public can actually have a voice in the planning process,” Francisco said. “The planning process has become so professionalized that sometimes it gets alienated from the people.”

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

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