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With Development Proposals on the Rise, Santa Barbara Planning Commission Scrutinizes AUD Program

Although only four dwelling units have been constructed under Santa Barbara’s Average Unit-Size Density Incentive Program, or AUD, the 2013 ordinance came under close scrutiny this week at the city’s Planning Commission meeting.

The AUD program was established to encourage the development of smaller, more-affordable workforce housing that is close to public transit, commercial services and parks in a pricey city with a dearth of rental housing.

Specifically, city staff wanted the commission’s input on how to approach the end of the program’s trial period, and whether it has been meeting its objectives, before they present an adaptive management report to a joint fall meeting between the commission and the City Council.

Since the program’s inception, the number of proposed housing and mixed-use developments has jumped considerably, with developers eager to take advantage of the streamlined process.

There are 902 net new units in the city’s pipeline, from projects both pending and approved.

Of those, 625 units are planned for the city’s “high-density residential” and “priority housing overlay” areas, 340 of which are pending, 163 are approved and 122 have building permits.

Once the program has either been in place for eight years or 250 units in those two areas have received their certificates of occupancy, the AUD’s trial period comes to an end, prompting a review of the program.

As of the end of June, four units have been constructed, but city staff estimated that the sunset period would be triggered in 24 to 30 months.

“I think (the AUD program has) been wildly successful,” Commissioner Mike Jordan said. “But part of that reasoning, of course, is that our only measure right now is number of units increasing.

That one measurement, he said, hampers the city’s ability to measure the program’s impacts.

The city’s primary concerns with the program centered around three such impacts: the compatibility of AUD projects’ size, bulk and scale with existing developments and historic “resources”; whether AUD units will ultimately house the segments of the city’s workforce who need them; and the effects on the supply and demand of on- and off-street parking.

The AUD parking requirement is one spot per unit.

Two dozen members of the public spoke before the commission, including representatives from the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission and Architectural Board of Review, who approve the AUD projects’ design plans.

Howard Wittausch of the ABR called the largest of the AUD developments that are proposed for residential areas “an intrusion” into those neighborhoods.

Most of the speakers during public comment described detrimental impacts they had witnessed or expected to witness from the program, with many advocating for a more robust adaptive management plan that would limit — or put the brakes entirely on — AUD developments.

In addition to echoing Wittausch’s sentiment, speakers brought up concerns over who would actually be living in the units, whether they would be affordable, and the impacts on parking.

Many expressed their worry that Santa Barbarans would be facing detrimental consequences before the program’s sunset period could put a halt to further developments.

Jordan lamented what he said was little effort on the part of the city to study the on-the-ground impacts the AUD program could generate, and added that if simply creating more housing was the city’s top priority, which would then lessen the importance of those studies, it should “stand up and say so.”

Through the different commissioners’ comments and recommendations, the commission’s overall takeaway appeared to be the importance of greater attention to the program’s various impacts.

With only four units constructed, one challenge the commissioners acknowledged was the lack of available data that could be used to evaluate the program’s effects.

Some of the commissioners wondered if requiring developers to provide the city with extra information, like their planned rent prices, would give the city a better idea of what direction to take the program.

Next month, the City Council is scheduled to discuss development-impact fees, though not only for AUD projects.

Such fees, levied on developers, would help pay for infrastructure maintenance and improvement, funds for which have increasingly fallen short of city needs, and would likely slow to a degree the onslaught of development applications.

That discussion was prompted in large part by a May proposal by city councilmen Bendy White and Jason Dominguez for a growth-management ordinance, that in turn was inspired by the numbers the AUD program has been putting up.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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