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Saturday, January 19 , 2019, 5:45 am | Fair 46º


Montecito Fire District Drops Group Approach to Tea Fire Rebuilding Process

Four years after the destructive blaze, the Board of Directors approves judging each homeowner's proposed project on its own merit

The Montecito Fire Protection District’s Board of Directors on Monday approved changing its approach for the Tea Fire rebuilding process, so homeowners on Banana Road and other affected areas will now be evaluated on an individual basis instead of in group agreements.

Fire Chief Chip Hickman said the group process has been problematic, so the district wants to judge each proposed project on its own merit.

Last week was the fourth anniversary of the Tea Fire, which destroyed 210 homes and burned 1,940 acres in 2008, and “we still have rebuilds that haven’t even broken ground,” Hickman said.

Grouping the permit requirements and access issues has “forced people into essentially a collective bargaining unit” with their neighbors, who all have different interests, said Abe Powell, a member of the Mountain Drive Community Association and a newly elected board member for the fire district.

“Four years later, my friend sitting here unable to get a permit to rebuild his house is a tragedy,” Powell said.

Thomas Cole, who lost his home in the fire, said it has been a long process working toward rebuilding — with a lot of fees. He told the board he looks forward to the individual approach, as did other Tea Fire victims at the meeting.

All three newly elected board members — Powell, Susan Keller and Gene Sinser — attended Monday’s meeting and will join incumbents Roy Jensen, who was re-elected Nov. 6, and John Venable, who was appointed in lieu of election in 2010. Montecito voters approved expanding the Board of Directors from three to five positions, which will take effect when the new four-year terms begin.

The district was scheduled to make a presentation to the Montecito Planning Commission next week about building a third fire station, but the board voted to delay that presentation by up to 90 days so the new five-member board could have more time to digest all the information and give input.

There are currently stations at 595 San Ysidro Road, the headquarters, and 2300 Sycamore Canyon Road. A third station is proposed on the eastern end of town to improve response time — to less than five minutes everywhere — and better serve residents. Response times to the Bella Vista area can take as long as 12 minutes, according to Wickman.

The project site picked out is around 2500 East Valley Road, which is east of Sheffield Drive and Romero Canyon Road. In the draft environmental impact report, the project would consist of a main fire station and support structures on a 2.55-acre site.

In a letter to residents, Hickman, who was appointed fire chief in June, wrote that the project has been planned for more than 20 years, and that the project site is ideal because of its size, location and lack of close neighbors.

It is currently being used as a lemon orchard and the property owner across the street (Montecito Agricultural Foundation) has sued the district, claiming the environmental impact report was flawed. District attorneys don’t believe the lawsuit has merit, but is paying “tens of thousands of dollars per month to defend the EIR,” Wickman wrote.

The district has been saving money to buy the land, build the station and buy a new fire engine for seven years, so resident taxes will not increase to cover the cost of the new station’s development, he continued. The district plans to pay for operations with the additional money it would receive for providing services to that area.

The Planning Commission is likely to take up this item in January, according to Mark Manion, Montecito Fire’s counsel.

Many Montecito residents spoke up during public comment Monday in support of another station, saying that all of Montecito deserves equal coverage and good emergency response times. Some of them had themselves needed either the quick medical or fire response, and said it was unfair to have “varying” levels of safety for different residents because of where the stations are located.

The new board members will have a lot of input, and some concern was raised about the then-candidates talking about Station 3 while they were campaigning. Manion referred those concerns to the Fair Political Practices Commission, which investigates such complaints.

Keller spoke during public comment and said she would need to look at the financial figures before making a decision on Station 3.

“I didn’t hear anyone say they were against Station 3 during the election, just that it needs more study,” she said.

She also noted that, even though she, Powell and Sisner aren’t sworn in yet, they became governed by the Brown Act — meetings rules for California government agencies — the moment they were elected.

Later in Monday’s meeting, the Board of Directors finalized contracts with the Montecito Firemens Association that were negotiated in July. There is a $50 increase for medical coverage, and the pension cost-sharing portion will be taken out before taxes, which Hickman said benefits the firefighters.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli 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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