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Expansion Moves Forward for Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

The City Council rejects — with conditions — a neighbor's appeal of the planned improvement project, including an exterior PA system

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s planned improvements include transforming its existing creekside office into a Nature Observatory.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s planned improvements include transforming its existing creekside office into a Nature Observatory. (Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History rendering)

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday laid a path for the planned expansion of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History by denying a neighbor’s appeal of the project.

The council voted 6-1 to move the expansion forward while considering concerns brought by challengers of the city Planning Commission’s approval on Jan. 8.

Mayor Pro Tempore Cathy Murillo voted in favor of making the museum ax plans for an exterior PA system — a main point of contention during the hours-long hearing.

Everyone agreed the nonprofit museum should expand, even the appellants.

The issue for a handful of longtime neighbors was whether the museum should be able to install a proposed exterior speaker system, relocate a trash enclosure and increase noise in general.

The appeal came before the council after planning commissioners granted the museum at 2559 Puesta del Sol a conditional use permit amendment and parking modification, as requested in its master plan outlining sizable growth over the next 10 to 15 years.

Those approvals were needed in order to provide less than the required number of on-site parking spaces — net loss from 156 to 155 — although museum officials say the master plan offers a net increase in disabled-accessible museum parking spaces.

After hearing from both sides, the majority of the council members decided a PA system could go in as long as it was tested for noise measurements before it became operational.

The council also opted to preserve the western connector trail and reversed conditions that forced museum stargazers out at 10 p.m. They will be allowed to remain until 10:30 p.m., clearing out by 11 p.m.

Expansion plans include creating a new butterfly garden, renovating the Marine, Paleo and Chumash halls, developing an enhanced bioswale with a boardwalk and overlook, and refreshing the woodland area with native plants.

Mark and Lauren Carey, who live adjacent to the museum on Las Encinas Road, objected to the expansion, with backing from neighbor Richard Solomon, who also dreaded the new PA system, since it hadn’t yet been tested.

Suzanne Elledge, who has worked for the museum planning the project for the past eight years, said the PA system wasn’t supposed to be heard offsite, noting the $30,000 sound wall the museum volunteered to put up near the neighbors’ property.

“If it’s too loud, the system can only be used for emergency announcements,” Elledge said. “I ask you to simply consider: If you can’t hear it, is it noise?”

Dozens of public speakers backed the museum for its economic and cultural value, and another said a PA system was merely a byproduct of living in an urban environment.

Murillo sympathized with neighbors, saying the museum didn’t need a PA system to announce wildfire conditions or closures because the nearby Santa Barbara Botanic Garden doesn’t have one.

The other officials disagreed, opting to deny the appeal, with conditions that will come back for final approval.

With project support, city staff can begin the next part of expansion.

Museum officials hope to annex five parcels of land around the museum site from the county into the city. The City Council and the Local Agency Formation Commission need to approve the annexation, and the council would also have to OK an amendment to its general plan.

Expansion work would begin in 2016, including installation of a new sidewalk along the south side of Puesta del Sol, and the museum would remain open along the way.

Founded in 1916 as the Museum of Comparative Oology, the museum adopted its current name in 1922.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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