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County Pushes Back Against Coastal Commission’s Proposed Land Use Changes

Board of Supervisors votes to draft a letter with stronger language as plenty of questions surface among officials and public speakers

After hearing outcry from dozens of community members, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to send a stronger message to the California Coastal Commission about its proposed changes to the county’s land use codes.

The issue drew plenty of community push-back among the speakers who gathered Tuesday to offer input in Santa Maria. Board chairwoman and Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said her office so far had received about 75 e-mails about the topic.

“There’s a lot of concern out there,” she said.

The commission’s proposed changes have caused a stir among some property owners, the biggest of which would require permits for things currently exempt from a fee, such as owning horses in residential areas. Under the modifications, if a property owner in a residential area wants to keep a horse, and the area has never had that kind of use before, a coastal development permit would be required, at a cost of $1,000.

According to the commission, the keeping of animals can constitute a “change in the density or intensity of use of land,” resulting in the need for a permit. The commission also argues that because animal keeping can degrade sensitive habitats, a permit is necessary to properly regulate activities.

The changes wouldn’t affect current owners and the horses they have on their property now, and adding horses to their property wouldn’t come at an additional cost. But those seeking to keep livestock, and even poultry, on their property for the first time could face a fee. The changes also would have implications on new agricultural uses of land, and a permit could be required for cultivated agriculture. If the area historically has been used for agriculture, it would be exempt. Increasing the intensity of livestock grazing also would require a permit, which has prompted concern among some ranchers.

The process of approving the modifications has been a long one, and five public hearings were held this summer. Four informational hearings were held in October to gather additional input. The changes will go before the Coastal Commission during its next meeting Nov. 18 in Santa Monica.

The county’s original coastal zoning ordinance was certified in 1982, but over time, communities — including Goleta and Summerland — developed their own plans. In addition, it’s an odd balance of power between the county and the commission. The commission’s role is to review the local coastal plan, which it can approve with modifications. The supervisors don’t have to approve the additions, though the county is working on other projects, such as the Gaviota Community Plan, and that many of the commission’s recommendations could resurface during that time.

The difficulty of enforcing such regulations quickly became apparent Tuesday as supervisors began to ask questions.

Supervisor Doreen Farr asked what would happen if an owner’s horse died, and if replacing it would require a permit, or what would happen if a property was sold and the new owner wanted to own horses as well.

County Planner Dianne Black said that if an owner gets a new horse to replace an older one, “I’m not going to have my staff go around and trying to figure out if someone’s got a new horse on their property.” But she posed another question that hadn’t been asked at the meeting.

“What if the horse has a horse?” she mused. “Technically, I suppose that would require a permit.”

One of the more puzzling of the changes involves beach staircases on private property that are attached to coastal bluff walls. The commission’s modifications say that repairs on the stairs could have up to half of their structures repaired over time, but no more, raising concerns with Supervisor Salud Carbajal.

“We could have a nuisance out there,” he said. 

Nearly 50 speakers came forward Tuesday, nearly all of them in opposition to the changes. Striking in their diversity, the speakers ranged from ranchers and farm owners, general contractors and horse owners to representatives of luxury hotels and real estate agents. But one message echoed throughout the comments as they urged the supervisors not to cede authority to the Coastal Commission — whose members are not elected — and keep authority on land use decisions local.

“We like your local control,” said Adrienne Schuele, a horse owner and Hope Ranch resident. “You have done a great job as our elected officials in protecting our coast.”

Bobbi King, who has owned a horse business in the area for 35 years, pleaded with the supervisors to consider the implications the changes would have on business owners.

“This would put me out of business,” she said. “I urge you to look at the ramifications.”

Many of the speakers said they weren’t sure of the problem the commission was trying to address by all of the changes. Others took issue with what they perceived to be an infringement of private property rights. The only speakers who were in favor of the modifications were from the Environmental Defense Center, the Urban Creeks Council and the Law Office of Marc Chytilo.

EDC attorney Linda Krop said that if the changes to the plan weren’t certified, they would come up later as various community plans seek to be certified. Krop said the commission’s changes actually increase exemptions for people, allowing them more chances to avoid paying a fee.

Black disagreed: “We’ve seen more exemptions shifted to permits, and have no seen a lot of shifts in the other direction.”

Among the supervisors, the conversation turned to the actual authority of the Coastal Commission. The fundamental purpose of the Coastal Act is to ensure that state policies prevail over local interests. Local communities can draft their own coastal plans.

The Coastal Commission by itself can’t draft any local policies, but it can approve — or reject — the plans. The commission could forever continue to deny certification, if an agreement isn’t reached.

“I have heard from such diverse constituents, and that has led me to believe this is a lot more serious this time,” Carbajal said. The commission does good work, but “you have a gamut of folks who have these concerns.”

Supervisor Joe Centeno took a harder stance on the issue.

“I’m not in any way going to have the CC usurp my obligations to the citizens of Santa Barbara County,” he said. “That’s my responsibility. The landowners and locally elected governments folks that have been taking care of this place. We’ve not done a bad job, I don’t think.”

Supervisor Doreen Farr said enforcing the modifications could result in people trying to skirt around the permits, and worse, could result in a loss of agriculture for the area.

“This is the unintended consequence that none of us want,” she said.

Wolf admonished people to keep things civil when dealing with other government agencies.

“I have never appreciated one government body bad-mouthing another. I don’t think that is an appropriate way to get things done,” she said. “None of us is completely happy. If we’re going to work with a quasi-judicial agency, we need to be more introspective.”

She added that while she represents people in the coastal zone, another 70,000 of her constituents live outside of those boundaries and she’s bound to represent their best interests as well.

The board voted to draft a letter to the commission with stronger language, and Farr and Wolf will attend the next commission meeting in Santa Monica on Nov. 19. The matter will come back before the board on Dec. 14, so supervisors can direct staff on how to respond to the modifications.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @laraanncooper, @NoozhawkNews or @Noozhawk. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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