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Public Sounds Off on Santa Barbara County’s Special-Event Ordinance

County Planning Commission weighs property owners' rights against those of neighborhoods

Just how many special events Santa Barbara County residents should be allowed to hold on their own property was on the minds of dozens of public speakers Wednesday as they vented to Planning Commission members looking to improve the current rules.

But exactly what type of events and how many will be allowed in the future remains to be seen, and no firm decisions were made.

Cracking down on “party houses” that abuse the current ordinances while allowing rule-following renters to prosper is the challenge facing the commissioners, who agreed to reconvene on the issue on Oct. 17 .

They’ll craft a recommendation for the Board of Supervisors, which will have the ultimate say on the issue.

Currently, the county’s system surrounding special events is complicated, and allows charitable events, such as fundraisers for nonprofit organizations, to be exempt from permits as long as they meet certain guidelines.

Commercial events require a conditional-use permit at all times.

County planner Noel Langle said people had complained they couldn’t hold events because the rules were too complicated to understand.

The commission has been tasked with looking at amendments to those rules that would apply to residential and agricultural properties, including vineyards, in the unincorporated areas of the county.

Three options were presented from staff, with the first preserving the current rules, but the commission could also tighten them up a bit.

Currently, one event can last up to five days with set up and tear down, and Langle said some residents had complained that was too long. A procedure could also be added to revoke a permit if applicants don’t comply, he said.

The second choice would allow for a fixed number of events based on the use of the property, and would not distinguish between charitable and commercial events. Under that option, events on residential lots could have a 300-person maximum, and each location could only host three events per year. Agricultural parcels could host six events.

For more events or more attendees, a new permit would be required, Langle said, and events with 75 or fewer people wouldn’t need a permit, but would be subject to other county regulations such as noise and nuisance ordinances.

The third option was based on the lot’s size instead of its zoning. The smaller the lot, the fewer attendees would be allowed, Langle said, and the county would grant permits accordingly.

In this option, charitable and commercial events would also be treated as equal.

This proved to be controversial, though, as many in the nonprofit community implored the commissioners not to lump their events in with commercial ones.

Sandra Knight, who runs the Valley Haven Adult Day Program in Solvang, said her group holds an annual event on a 40-acre property that garners significant funding for the group.

“We’re constantly seeing our funding sources diminish or disappear altogether,” she said, adding that if nonprofit events aren’t distinguished from commercial events, “it will be nonprofit events that will be eliminated.”

Bruce Porter of the Santa Barbara County Chapter of the American Red Cross offered similar thoughts.

“Please don’t make owners have us compete against their profit-making efforts,” he said.

Bonnie Hope, who owns a DJ service that books several hundred weddings per year, said only a handful of property owners allow disruptive events, while most vendors in the event industry are respectful and follow the rules.

“My hope is that we are not all punished,” she said.

Nearly all of the speakers expressed concern that the current ordinance was not being enforced now, and commissioners agreed.

But opinions on the details the changes should include were just as varied on the dais as they had been during public comment.

Commissioner Joe Valencia said he’d support eight events per year, with no distinction between charitable events. With the economy doing poorly, people in the county depend on that rental income, he said.

“If your peace of mind is disturbed for day or two, so be it,” he said.

Commissioner Cecilia Brown said she didn’t support separating charitable and commercial events, and also said that lots inside an urban area should be treated differently that those outside.

“What occurs on these smaller parcels does have impact on neighbors,” she said.

Commissioner Michael Cooney admitted that the ideas coming from commissioners were diverse, and said he wasn’t prepared to make a decision.

“What we have now on the books doesn’t work,” he said, adding that the ordinance is being violated on a regular basis.

Although the property rights of those hosting the event should be respected, Cooney said, the rights of those living nearby must also be given consideration.

“They shouldn’t have to deal with weddings week after week after week,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper 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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