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Commission Rejects Plan For Botanic Garden

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden's half-finished terrace project halted on 5-4 vote. Decision may be appealed to Board of Supervisors.

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The county Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission voted 5-4 on Monday to deny a half-finished construction project at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

The decision, made before an audience of about 100 people, appears to prolong the uncertainty surrounding the project, which had gotten a green light from a county official earlier this year. Thus far, roughly $90,000 worth of stone wall work has occurred on what was to be a new terrace for Garden events.

But it’s not over yet. The Garden, located at 1212 Mission Canyon Road, is expected to file an appeal to the Board of Supervisors.

Called “Meadow Terrace,” the project in question is a 4,200-square-foot, three-tiered terrace with sandstone retaining walls and pathways near the Garden’s main trail.

In the context of the Garden’s vast, 65-acre expanse, the area of dispute — about a tenth of an acre — is a speck on the map. But preservationists argue it is located too near the Garden’s signature design, created in the 1930s, of dirt trails weaving through native California vegetation.

In the spring, the Garden received a special designation from a county staff member that allowed for a quick start, exempting the Garden from the extensive governmental approval process that is required of most projects.{mosimage}

But the official didn’t realize the project was a matter of public controversy, meaning it did not qualify for the special designation. The official also didn’t know about an unusual county resolution declaring the trail concept a historic landmark. (Typically landmark status is reserved for buildings.) Thus the county Planning Division reversed course, freezing the project in its tracks.

Opponents of the project say it defiles the natural landscape that has become an iconic setting in Santa Barbara. They also charge that the Garden, which is working on a separate but no less contentious plan to expand, is trying to sneak changes under the radar in piecemeal fashion to escape the public approval process.

On Monday, Mission Canyon resident Ilene Power, an artist, said when she recently visited the Garden after a lengthy trip abroad, she was appalled.

“It looked like Walt Disney had risen from the grave and built a yellow-brick road,” she said. “I can only wonder if this is the tip of the iceberg. Reject this Disney-fication of our beautiful landmark.”

Supporters of the Garden’s project have accused the neighbors of being NIMBYs — an acronym for "Not in My Backyard" that is commonly used to describe those who reflexively oppose developments near their neighborhoods.

Supporters also accuse the Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission of nitpicking, and of placing the importance of preservation over that of science and education.

“I always thought of the Botanic Garden as an educational place,” said Bill Burke, noting that he is a neighbor. “When I was in high school, they really opened my eyes. An educational place has to be dynamic — it has to change. I don’t see it as some kind of historical structure that has to be maintained and cannot change at all.”{mosimage}

On Monday, most of the nine commissioners seemed to agree that the terrace violates a historic-landmark resolution passed four years ago by the Board of Supervisors. That resolution states, “There shall not be any substantial deviation from the historic landscape design concept without approval.”

But they disagreed about how much of a hard line to take. Commissioner Barbara Lowenthal argued that the two parties should continue their previous attempts to work it out.

“I think the Garden has shown good faith,” she said.

The landmarks commission had already rejected the plan once.

On Sept. 10, the Garden presented the plan for its half-finished project to the landmarks commission, which rejected it in a unanimous vote. The Garden then filed its appeal to the Board of Supervisors. But the commission agreed to seek a compromise that could have waived the need for the Garden’s appeal: it formed a subcommittee to massage the Garden’s plans.

The resulting revision, which is what the commission saw Monday, was relatively minor; it included making more natural the look of the walls abutting the Garden’s meadow.

Ultimately, the call for sterner action prevailed Monday. Commissioner John Woodward, who made the motion to deny the project, said the previous attempt to work out a compromise produced unsatisfactory results.

“I was hoping about the possibility of re-locating the area,” he said. “The plan we see here today, in my mind, has changed very little. I’m very disappointed in it.”

He added that the commission can continue to work with the Garden, if that’s what the Garden desires.{mosimage}

After the meeting, commissioner Deborah Schwartz, who voted against Woodward’s prevailing motion, said she believes the decision sends the wrong message to the Garden.

“This continued type of protracted, un-collaborative relationship is a lose-lose for all,” she said. “We (on the subcommittee) were looking to try to identify a reasonable compromise, not an ideal compromise.”

Nancy Johnson, the Garden’s vice president of development and marketing, said the museum’s board of directors must decide what to do next.

Johnson has said the Garden is meant to be a museum showcasing plants that grow across California; it is not in the business of preserving the native landscape of Santa Barbara. On the contrary, she said, it goes to great lengths to simulate the landscapes of other areas in the state — like the northern and eastern parts California — by planting things like redwood trees and desert foliage, which do not grow naturally here.

Of the 600 botanic gardens across the United States, it is one of just 25 to be accredited by the American Association of Museums, she said.

Maps of the project in question can be found at the bottom of the agenda

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