Saturday, April 21 , 2018, 7:17 am | Fair 47º

 
 
 
 

Ray Ford: Case of the Disappearing Steps at Santa Barbara’s Hale Park

Eucalyptus Hill residents urge city Parks and Recreation Department to replace a set of stairs that provided access to upper Hale Park near Montecito

Sunny Ingalls and her dog, Griffin, were regular users of the steps leading down into Hale Park from Eucalyptus Hill Road in Santa Barbara.
Sunny Ingalls and her dog, Griffin, were regular users of the steps leading down into Hale Park from Eucalyptus Hill Road in Santa Barbara. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Hale Park is not large but it certainly is one of the prettiest of Santa Barbara’s city parks.

At 13 acres, bounded by Camino Viejo on the bottom and Eucalyptus Hill Road on the top, it is long and skinny, with a small creek running through it, clusters of oak trees and sky-high eucalyptus trees.

It is the perfect definition of a rustic neighborhood park.

There are no amenities other than an old road that winds its way up one side and a meandering trail that loops back down to the lower trailhead. As an off-leash park it is a favorite of nearby homeowners as a quiet place to walk their dogs or to take an evening stroll.

For the majority of those who come to Hale Park, access is from Camino Viejo, where there is space for a handful of cars and the gently rising path suitable for everyone, even those in wheelchairs.

Until recently, those who live above the park near Montecito have accessed it from Eucalyptus Hill Road via a set of steps set in place against the beautiful stone wall that lines the road’s edge.

Though the older steps were a bit of a challenge for those with dogs, in early 2015 when they were replaced by a set that were much sturdier, neighborhood use increased dramatically. But the increased use may have also drawn the attention of the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department.

In January 2016, almost a year after they had been installed, the steps were removed.

On the day the steps were taken down, Frank Randall, whose home borders the park, was returning from a regular morning workout with his wife when he noticed a Parks and Recreation crew was just below the beautiful stone wall marking the upper park boundary.

“One of the crew was using a power saw to cut the stairs in half,” he explained. “I asked them what they were doing, and another one of them told me they had been instructed to take them out.”

As Randall watched, the crew proceeded to finish dismantling the steps, took them over to the truck, and hauled them away.

The upper Hale Park steps shown in 2013. These were replaced by a much sturdier set in 2015, which was later removed by the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department. Click to view larger
The upper Hale Park steps shown in 2013. These were replaced by a much sturdier set in 2015, which was later removed by the City of Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

When nearby neighbor and dog walker Sunny Ingalls discovered the steps were gone, she was dumbfounded by their removal, especially concerned that this had occurred without notice or explanation.

“What we were left with was a 6-foot drop off the wall to get down into the park,” she told Noozhawk. “When the new steps were installed in 2015, we were all really happy. They provided us with much safer access. The steps were wide and they were solid. Anyone could get up and down them.”

For other Eucalyptus Hill Road residents, what had been a short stroll along the road to the steps had now become a 2.4- to 3.6-mile round-trip drive to access Hale Park from the lower trailhead on Camino Viejo several hundred yards away.

Sue Burk, president of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association, also was baffled by the decision to remove the steps.

“Despite the fact that the steps aren’t there anymore, people are still going over the wall and climbing up it,” she noted. “We now have much more of a safety issue than when they were in place.”

Forced to walk her dog along the streets above Eucalyptus Hill Road, Ingalls discovered her neighbors were just as upset as she was.

“As I walked around the neighborhood and mentioned the problem that removing the steps had caused me and my dog, Griffin, I realized that others were as concerned as I was and wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Eventually, she started collecting names of those who supported having the steps put back in, and along with Randall and other neighbors, began to attend meetings of the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Commission, availing themselves of the public comment period to let the commissioners know they wanted the steps put back in.

Neighbors Ask City to Replace Steps

As a result of these efforts, Parks and Recreation director Jill Zachary agreed to meet with the citizen group at Hale Park on Sept. 7. Those attending included Burk, Ingalls and Randall from the neighborhood, and Zachary, assistant director Rich Hanna and parks manager Santos Escobar from the city.

Right off the bat, Burk wanted to know what kind of timing was involved in getting the steps replaced.

Sue Burk, president of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association, and park neighbor Frank Randall show off the Hale Park area where access steps were removed. Click to view larger
Sue Burk, president of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association, and park neighbor Frank Randall show off the Hale Park area where access steps were removed. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

“The first thing Jill said was ‘We have no money. There is no money to do a project like this,’” Burk recalled. “So I said can we raise the money? Can we pay for an architect? Can we pay for an engineer?”

While Burk, Ingalls and Randall were focusing on convincing Zachary to commit to rebuilding the steps, the director was focusing on what might be needed to make that happen.

“Beyond the challenge of designing a set of steps over or through a wall once part of the Peabody estate, there were traffic and parking issues, historical concerns, and other issues that made the project more complicated than I’d hoped,” Zachary said in a recent interview at parks department headquarters.

“We knew that there had been steps in place along the upper wall for years, but this and other privately built structures in a number of our parks were becoming a risk-management issue. In the case of the Hale Park steps, I referred the issue to the city’s risk manager, Mark Howard, who told us to get rid of them.”

One of the most problematic issues turned out to be dealing with accessibility.

“Any time we look at making an improvement like this, it triggers ADA access requirements,” Zachary said of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“There are exceptions to the requirement, but we don’t get to make that determination.”

Apparently that is within the purview of the city building officials.

Dog lovers enjoy the ambience in the off-leash part of Hale Park. Click to view larger
Dog lovers enjoy the ambience in the off-leash part of Hale Park. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

One reason an exception might be granted is due to the difficulty or excessive cost of making the project meet ADA standards. Another possible exception might be in the case that adding accessibility would cause the project to be unfeasible.

Burk argues that the park already has an accessible entry point along Camino Viejo, and wonders why one would also be needed at the top.

“That’s the most likely argument we’ll make as well,” Zachary said. “There would be some improvements we’d need to make at the Camino Viejo trailhead but relatively minimal compared to what it would cost at a Eucalyptus Hill entry point.”

Before proceeding too much further, given the limited amount of time the department had available for the project, neighbors felt there was a need to reassure city officials that they should devote time to it.

“One of the concerns we got from Jill at the meeting was regarding how important the steps really were to the community,” Burk said. “She provided a bit of a challenge, to prove to her that the neighborhood was really interested in getting the steps replaced.”

Randall said they worked to have members of the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association sign a petition asking the city to replace the steps.

“The goal was to have at least 100 names on our petition by the next commission meeting in October,” he said. “Within a five-week period we had over 160 who had signed it.”

Following this, on Dec. 4 the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association adopted the Hale Park Initiative, requesting that the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department replace the stairs that were removed from the entrance of Hale Park at Eucalyptus Hill Road.

Buoyed by the level of support shown by the community, Zachary confirmed that she has added the project to the department’s capital improvement list, and is working to have a set of design concepts ready to review in early 2017.

“I totally understand the problems this has caused for the neighbors who’ve used the steps to access the upper part of Hale Park for so many years,” she said. “Our focus in the next few months will be to come up with a design that meets the community’s needs, respects the historic nature of the stone wall and, hopefully, is also affordable.”

Randall says the neighborhood will not be deterred.

“We’ll find the money to make this happen,” he said. “We’re ready to step up and do our part to get our steps back.”

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. Click here for additional columns, or view his previous work at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.

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