Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 3:34 pm | Fair 71º


Local News

Bill Macfadyen: Santa Barbara County’s New Storm Plan Long on Evacuations, Short on Explanations

As Noozhawk goes public with our newsroom, NoozWeek’s Top 5 warms up a cold case, gets stuck on Coast Village Road, tears into Franceschi House and readies to ride commuter rail

Mapping disaster.
Mapping disaster. (Santa Barbara County map)

Way back on Jan. 1, when I announced that Noozhawk had eliminated story comments, I noted that we would be developing other ways to engage with and respond to our readers.

One of the initiatives I mentioned was a monthly Public Newsroom that we planned to hold at our new Noozhawk World HQ at Impact HUB in downtown Santa Barbara. Like just about everyone else in this town, the Montecito mayhem knocked us sideways for a bit.

I’m pleased to say that our inaugural event is now scheduled for 5:30-7 p.m. March 1 at Impact HUB, 1117 State St. That’s a Thursday — a 1st Thursday, to be exact — as we’re proud members of Downtown Santa Barbara and we figured our guests could make an evening of it with all of the other festivities in the neighborhood.

My agenda is to introduce what I have in mind for these monthly gatherings before turning it over to executive editor Tom Bolton and managing editor Giana Magnoli to talk about our coverage of both the Thomas Fire and the Montecito flash floods.

We also plan to outline a few of the challenges we faced as a news organization, explain several of the lessons we learned, and share some ideas for how we might do things differently next time. Then we’ll open it up to questions and a conversation. Light refreshments will be served.

The Public Newsroom is limited to our Hawks Club members, those loyal readers who provide vital financial support to help keep Noozhawk soaring. Click here to become a member.

An invitation will be going out to our Hawks Club email list early next week. Reservations are required, and will be first come, first serve.

I’m very excited about the Public Newsroom, and I look forward to seeing about 50 of you at the Noozhawk nest for it.

Just as exciting this past week were our Google Analytics, which recorded 148,100 site visits, or readers, in another gold medal-winning performance.

What follows is my take on your Top Five stories during that period. Please keep in mind that this Best of Bill feature is my opinion column, and I’ve got quite a few to spew this time.

1. Santa Barbara County Changes Evacuation Procedures for Future Storms, Releases Debris Flow Risk Map

One month after Montecito’s deadly flash flooding and mud flows, Santa Barbara County authorities announced a comprehensive new timeline for future evacuations as well as new projections of potential danger zones.

They’ve also replaced the mandatory and voluntary evacuation terminology with the scarier-sounding “extreme risk” and “high risk” designations, respectively.

The Jan. 9 disaster killed 23 people, 19 of them in neighborhoods that had been designated as voluntary evacuation areas. Oddly, the voluntary zones were identical to the voluntary areas used during the Thomas Fire, which raced across the mountains on Dec. 16, denuding them of vegetation and causing the instability that cascaded down with such ferocity 24 days later.

At a Feb. 8 news conference, Sheriff Bill Brown outlined an exhaustive — and likely unsustainable — timeline for evacuations to be triggered each time the National Weather Service notifies the county Office of Emergency Management that a major storm is in the forecast.

Accepting the weather service’s record of accuracy, the timeline sets in motion certain sweeping evacuation procedures at intervals of 72, 48, 24 and 12 hours.

In an unusual twist, two hours before the storm is expected to hit, a 13-mile stretch of Highway 101 will even be closed pre-emptively between Milpas Street in Santa Barbara and Highway 150 east of Carpinteria.

Under Brown’s latest plan, all residents should be gone from their homes between 24 and 12 hours before each storm’s projected arrival.

Trying to follow this logic to its conclusion, must Montecito residents now keep their bags packed and cars loaded at all times, and sleep with one eye open until rain season is over? Each time they leave town, must they take everything with them? Must they all have standing hotel reservations and pet care arrangements?

And what about the public safety personnel required — on an ongoing basis — to protect and serve an enclave of 9,000 absent residents? Where in the Santa Barbara County budget is that money sitting?

Lest you think this is all for Montecito’s benefit, it’s not. In addition to Montecito and Carpinteria below the Thomas Fire burn area, the new maps also cover areas below the Alamo Fire footprint east of Santa Maria, the Whittier Fire burn area west of Goleta and the Sherpa Fire footprint on the Gaviota oast.

“We found after the Jan. 9 event for some people the focus was on the word voluntary, not the word evacuate,” Brown said.

That’s one interpretation, but it’s not the one I heard from the dozens of neighbors I talked with on Jan. 9 in the mandatory evacuation zone above East Valley Road.

Repeatedly cited was the decision by authorities to bar residents from returning to their homes for five days after the Thomas Fire burned through. Perhaps my neighbors will heed the calls next time, but I can’t help but wonder if a catastrophic credibility gap was avoidable. Frankly, I think it was.

At every step over the last nearly three months, each official in authority acted in what he or she thought was in the best interest of public safety and protection. Such intent cannot be questioned.

But call me a smart-ass if you wish, I have grave concerns about the practicality of this new emergency management plan, and you should, too.

In addition to what I’ve highlighted above, elected officials need to explain how the rather amorphous “extreme risk” and “high risk” descriptions will affect rebuilding, affordable insurance, property values, the real estate market and Santa Barbara County’s precarious tax base — all of which will have impacts that reach far beyond Montecito. Tackling one thing at a time should not be acceptable.

The scale and enormity of this disaster can not be overstated, and we owe it to the victims and their families to make sure we do everything we can to prevent future generations from having to endure such grief. It’s a matter of life and death, but it’s also so much more than that.

2. Cold-Case Detectives Pursuing New Leads in Search for Serial Killer Suspected in 4 Goleta Slayings

Cheri Domingo and Greg Sanchez were brutally murdered in Domingo’s home on Toltec Way in Goleta in 1981. The Golden State Killer has long been suspected. Click to view larger
Cheri Domingo and Greg Sanchez were brutally murdered in Domingo’s home on Toltec Way in Goleta in 1981. The Golden State Killer has long been suspected. (Domingo family photo)

In the annals of California crime sprees, few are more notorious than the Golden State Killer. The suspect has been linked to at least a dozen homicides, 45 rapes and more than 120 residential burglaries throughout the state, beginning in 1976 and continuing until 1986, when he abruptly stopped.

The still unidentified man, also known as the Original Night Stalker and the East Area Rapist, is suspected of four murders in Goleta as well as another incident in which a couple was tied up and terrorized before they managed to escape.

Anyone remember this guy? Click to view larger
Anyone remember this guy? (FBI illustration)

The Golden State Killer cold case is still open, and the investigation periodically produces a clue or two — even 32 years later. When they do, our readers eagerly pounce.

Such is the case with our Tom Bolton’s latest story, on the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s recent announcement that it is pursuing two new leads — ones that really could use the public’s help.

According to Sgt. Shaun Hampton, one lead involves a man who arrived at the now-defunct American River Hospital in Carmichael just before noon May 30, 1977, for treatment of a possible broken shoulder.

“The patient was potentially suspected of being the East Area Rapist by member(s) of the staff, for unknown reasons, who contacted the Sheriff’s Department,” Hampton said. “The suspect fled the scene prior to treatment and prior to the arrival of sheriff’s deputies.”

He said the man had used a stolen Warehouse Union Local 17 identification card, and the rest of the contact information he had provided was bogus.

The emergency room staff member who completed the form initialed it with a “BK,” Hampton said.

Two days before, he added, a suspect likely injured himself escaping from the sexual assault of a local couple.

“The rapist jumped a fence into a very steep canal where avoiding injury would be difficult in the dark,” Hampton said. “This sexual assault also preceded an over 13-week break in the rape series and an 18-week break in attacks in Sacramento.”

The second lead involves a man who was a patient in 1973 at the Bay Area Union Professional Center, which was then at 6311 Fair Oaks Blvd. in Carmichael but closed long ago.

Hampton said detectives had visited an optical shop at the center to try to glean clues from a pair of prescription lenses dropped at the scene of a January 1973 burglary in nearby Rancho Cordova. He said investigators are looking for information about shop employees who might remember something.

The Golden State Killer was described as a white male in his 20s, about 5-foot-10 and having blond or light brown hair, and an athletic build. He would be in his late 50s to early 70s today.

The murders of two Goleta couples have been linked to him:

» On Dec. 30, 1979, Dr. Robert Offerman, 44, and his girlfriend, Alexandria Manning, 35, were found shot to death in Offerman’s Avenida Pequeña condominium.

» On July 27, 1981, Cheri Domingo, 35, and her boyfriend, Gregory Sanchez, 27, were found murdered in Domingo’s home on Toltec Way.

In September 1979, a couple on Queen Ann Lane was tied up and terrorized by an intruder, but they managed to free themselves and run to freedom. The Golden State Killer has always been suspected in the case.

Click here to contact the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department with information about the cold case.

3. Santa Barbara Scrambles to Ease Worsening Traffic Jam on Coast Village Road

Them’s the brakes. Click to view larger
Them’s the brakes. (Bill Macfadyen / Noozhawk photo via Instagram)

For nearly two weeks after Montecito was — mostly — reopened following its deadly flash flooding and mud flows, traffic through the community was moving at the speed of a herd of turtles. Business owners were frustrated, residents were furious and, to be quite candid, politicians and public officials were doing little more than issuing word clouds of promises that they were working on a plan.

As is well known, East Valley Road/Highway 192 is closed at two critical points, halfway between Sycamore Canyon and Hot Springs roads and again between Sheffield Drive and Ortega Ridge Road. The roadway is a key east-west artery for Montecito’s 9,000 residents as well as commuters who would be better served sticking to Highway 101.

As a result, north-south access was mostly funneled to San Ysidro Road and, to a lesser extent, Sheffield Drive, with Olive Mill and Hot Springs roads intermittently closed for major debris removal. Cross-valley traffic was pushed down to Coast Village Road, North Jameson Lane and the freeway, along with Ortega Hill Road, which clogged up Summerland.

Four- and even five-way stop signs control all but two intersections in Montecito, and it doesn’t take a roads scholar to see how quickly things can go from slow to standstill.

“Our No. 1 problem is traffic,” Robert Ludwick, president of the Coast Village Association, told our Josh Molina. “It has to be addressed now. The daily eastbound congestion getting to the Santa Barbara 101 at Olive Mill is absolutely unacceptable.”

The week before, he had told the Santa Barbara City Council the same thing. It still took the city more than a week to implement some kind of a response.

Interestingly, the California Highway Patrol took notice of the lengthy backup onto southbound Highway 101 at the San Ysidro Road exit ramp and, apparently without having to conduct any “traffic calming” studies, took it upon itself to station officers in the intersections there to control the flow, Old School style.

And it worked. Who knew? Actually, I did — as readers of this column and my Instagram account can attest.

The city eventually finished its plan and, on Feb. 9 began making its promised changes. You can read Josh’s story for the underwhelming details but I haven’t been back to Coast Village Road since. About the same time, authorities completed most of the heavy lifting through Devil’s Triangle at Hot Springs and Olive Mill roads, and now Montecito traffic is flowing largely unimpeded through that area.

Additionally, Caltrans now has several flashing signs on the freeway noting that Coast Village Road is not for “thru traffic,” and — wonder of wonders — commuters appear to be heeding the advice.

Since I’ve spent the last two columns wailing on those in charge, I’ll gladly give them credit for the improvements I have seen. Just after 5 p.m. Feb. 14, I was one of only two vehicles on Cabrillo Boulevard stopped at the traffic signal at the Hot Springs Road exit, which had just three vehicles going through the light from the freeway.

Further, up at the roundabout, I could see no backup to the east on Coast Village Road as I breezed through without having to slow down.

And speaking of roundabouts, the one proposed for the other end of Coast Village Road can’t come soon enough. But that — and the freeway widening — is a gripe for another day

4. Santa Barbara Decides to Demolish Franceschi House, Build Interpretive Pavilion

We can’t save them all. Nor should we. Click to view larger
We can’t save them all. Nor should we. (Urban Hikers / Noozhawk file photo)

Franceschi House has languished up on Santa Barbara’s Riviera for as long as I can remember. Located adjacent to Franceschi Park off Mission Ridge Road, it nonetheless offers sweeping views of the city below, the Santa Barbara Channel and the islands beyond.

The house was built by botanist Francesco Franceschi and his wife, Cristina, in the early 1900s, then sold in 1927 to architect and philanthropist Alden Freeman, who later dumped it on the City of Santa Barbara but with no money for upkeep.

Seismically unsafe and hopelessly dilapidated, it is always described as “Craftsman style.” To me, however, it has all the charm of a Soviet politburo member’s summer dacha, the one in the low-rent district out in the sticks near Chernobyl.

Preservationists and city officials made a years-long attempt to salvage Franceschi House, but finally gave up.

“It’s time to move on,” former Mayor Sheila Lodge said. “The house cannot be saved.”

I’m with her, and on Feb. 13, the City Council agreed, voting unanimously to tear it down and build in its stead some kind of an interpretive pavilion memorializing the apparently vast local contributions of Franceschi and Freeman.

In case you were wondering, the price tag for such interpretation is estimated between $2 million and $3 million.

Will that money really be well spent? The city already owns a lightly used park next door; maybe it should just sell the property, put the land back on the tax rolls, and use the proceeds for, I don’t know, the rainy-day fund?

5. Morning Commuter Surfliner Train Expected to Hit South Coast on April 2

All aboard. Well, not yet. Click to view larger
All aboard. Well, not yet. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The concept of commuter rail has been a South Coast pipe dream for decades. All of a sudden, the train appears to be approaching the station — and could arrive as soon as April 2.

Officials say the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments will be using up to $2.5 million of Measure A funds to pay for an Amtrak Surfliner train to make stops in Ventura, Santa Barbara and Goleta during peak morning commuter times, and then reverse course in the afternoons.

“We are very much looking forward to this opportunity,” said Goleta City Councilman Michael Bennett, who revealed the news at the Feb. 12 Town & Gown Standing Committee meeting of officials from the City of Goleta and UC Santa Barbara.

The service, which would be provided over a two-year test period, is in the final stages of getting agency sign-offs, according to SBCAG deputy executive director Gregg Hart.

The Santa Barbara Metropolitan Transit District would provide “last-mile” service between depots and key employment centers like Cottage Health facilities, Deckers Brands and Yardi Systems, according to officials.

Negotiations have been underway for some time, but took on a greater urgency after the deadly Jan. 9 Montecito flash flooding and mud flows closed Highway 101 for almost two weeks. To get around the mile-long gap, commuters east of Montecito were forced to take the train, which was back in business several days later; ferry boats; small planes; or a grueling six-hour commute on Interstate 5, over to Santa Maria and down to the South Coast.

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Last Year on Noozhawk

What was our most-read story this time last year? Sheriff’s Department Confirms Man Shot Dead by Deputies Near Santa Barbara.

                                                                 •        •        •

Bill Macfadyen’s Story of the Week

All this time I figured they thought it was chocolate: Why Do Olympians Bite Their Medals?

                                                                 •        •        •

Best of Bill’s Instagram

I’ve got pictures from Montecito’s wiped-out Old Spanish Town and the badly damaged Four Seasons Resort-The Biltmore Santa Barbara, along with some vivid colors and spectacular clouds. Click here for my Instagram feed. And in some cases, my food.

                                                                 •        •        •

Watch It

The glass is always half full for my friend and former colleague, Dave Loveton. And although he’s currently locked in a fierce battle with cancer, his upbeat attitude has not wavered, nor has his inspiring resilience, stamina and grit.

For the last dozen years, Dave has served the Santa Barbara City College Athletics Department as its sports information specialist. That title does not begin to capture all of the extra work he does on behalf of SBCC, the Vaqueros’ coaches and staff, and the student athletes he’s promoted along the way.

Earlier this month, SBCC President Anthony Beebe presented Dave with the school’s Every Day Hero Award, taking time to describe many of his everyday contributions. It was a gracious tribute, and richly deserved.

Dave, on behalf of your friends at Noozhawk, we’re proud to be on your team. Vaqueros don’t back down.

(Barry Punzal / Noozhawk video)

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How You Can Help Noozhawk

Talk is cheap. Professional news gathering is not. If you like what you’re reading on Noozhawk and think our reporting is essential to the community, please support our work by becoming a member of our Hawks Club.

While most of Noozhawk’s revenue comes from advertising and sponsorships, we believe that reader contributions are a vital source of support — financially and fundamentally.

Your loyalty membership helps us continue to provide you with unmatched local news and in-depth reporting on the issues that you care about.

How can you help? It’s easy.

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk and Instagram: @bill.macfadyen, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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