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Alta Mesa Duplex Proposal in a Stalemate

Santa Barbara City Council reverses Planning Commission denial but 4-3 vote not enough to change zoning designation.

The Santa Barbara City Council grappled Tuesday with a proposal for nine duplex units on the Mesa that pitted the benefits of providing middle-class housing against the pitfalls of higher densities.

Strangely, although the council wound up making a decision on the proposal — whose plan to include four affordable units in the Alta Mesa Neighborhood project amounted to an unusually high proportion of workforce housing — it isn’t clear whether the developer won or lost.

The council, which has been seeking ways to stem the exodus of middle-class families leaving increasingly expensive Santa Barbara, voted 4-3 in favor of developer Mark Lloyd’s appeal of a recent Planning Commission decision. The commission had denied Lloyd’s proposal to change the zoning to allow for higher densities on the one-acre property.

The council’s vote effectively undid the July decision of the commission, which was turned off by the density of Lloyd’s proposed project, located at the base of a hill, in the 1400 block of Rogers Court, off Santa Fe Place.

But in a technical idiosyncrasy, the 4-3 council vote amounted to no decision. While overturning the Planning Commission requires only four votes, changing the zoning law requires a supermajority of five.

The next step is Lloyd’s. Because the Planning Commission decision was overruled, the project is no longer dead. But neither has it been propelled forward in the way he had hoped.

This means Lloyd now has the option of taking the risk of spending time and resources to tweak the project in the hopes of gaining another council yes vote. Or he can scrap the plan altogether. On Tuesday, Lloyd said he doesn’t know what he’ll do, although after the vote he did make a comment to the council that he was capable of “reading my tea leaves.

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Das Williams
Leading the charge to approve the proposal was Councilman Das Williams, a frequent champion of workforce housing for the middle class. Williams said the presence of four 1,100-square-foot affordable units and five 2,200-square-foot market-rate units is much more preferable than what he views to be the alternative: building two mega-mansions on the property.

“The kind of people living in 1,100 square-foot houses are people like me — barely making it in Santa Barbara,” he said.

Williams was joined by Roger Horton, Grant House and Helene Schneider.

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Brian Barnwell
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Dale Francisco
Leading the charge against it was new Councilman Dale Francisco, who, in his successful bid to unseat incumbent Brian Barnwell last fall, campaigned partly on a platform of slow growth.

“I believe the planning commissioners are our land-use experts,” he said. “I need to see a very, very convincing reason for overruling their judgment.”

He was joined by Mayor Marty Blum and Councilwoman Iya Falcone.

One sticking point for several council members Tuesday was how Lloyd was not merely asking that the zoning for the area change to duplex capabilities from the single-family designation. He also was seeking a General Plan amendment that would clear up a current inconsistency in the property regarding density: Part of it allows for five units per acre, and part of it allows for three units per acre. Lloyd asked that the General Plan be amended so that the five-units-per-acre rule be applied to the entire property.

The General Plan is meant to be an overarching, guiding document for setting policy. Put another way, in a typical scenario the council would try to ensure that any given proposal conforms to it, not the other way around.

Currently, the council and the Planning Commission are in the middle of a years-long process of updating the General Plan for the first time since 1995.

To Williams, Lloyd’s request was reasonable, given that the current General Plan is outdated, and because of what he views to be the city’s dire need for affordable housing.

“Five units per acre is not very dense,” he noted.

To Francicso, the request was a dangerous precedent.

“If we can go against that framework whenever a good project comes along, I think the result of that is chaos,” he said.

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