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Santa Barbara Planning Commission Scrutinizes New Use for St. Mary’s Seminary Facilities

Application to turn Las Canoas Road site into substance abuse treatment center must “substantially conform” to 54-year-old permit that allowed for original seminary

Santa Barbara Planning Commissioners considered a proposal to turn St. Mary’s Seminary into a residential substance abuse treatment center.
Santa Barbara Planning Commissioners considered a proposal to turn St. Mary’s Seminary into a residential substance abuse treatment center.  (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

St. Mary’s Seminary sits far up the narrow, windy Las Canoas Road, past the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in the hillsides of Santa Barbara’s northernmost reaches.

After 54 years as a seminary, student retreat destination, and religious training center, the property is for sale, and its next chapter may be as a substance abuse treatment center.

Going through the regulatory motions to take over is Axis Treatment Centers, a Los Angeles-based organization.

On Thursday, Axis’ application went before the Santa Barbara Planning Commission for input on whether or not the proposed use of the facilities “substantially conforms” to the conditional-use permit (CUP) granted by the County Planning Commission in 1962 that originally allowed St. Mary’s to operate as a seminary.

The ultimate decision on whether or not it will “substantially conform” will be made by the city’s community development director, who will take the commission’s input into consideration.

The purview of St. Mary’s activities has expanded since the 1962 CUP and the City of Santa Barbara’s 1968 annexation of it. Subsequent physical additions such as expanded parking, dormitories, and a gymnasium help support the religious trainings, parish groups, summer programs, recovery programs, and more that utilize the site.

A May letter written on behalf of St. Mary’s Reverend Raymond Van Dorpe said that, at the busiest times of the year, the seminary hosts up to 100 individuals for an overnight stay, and serves over 5,000 people a year over 120 different events.

Axis’ fully licensed residential treatment center would serve a maximum of 40 clients on site at a time, with 24 full-time employees.

Individual and group therapy, according to John Cuykendall, the agent representing Axis, will include activities like guided meditation, goal setting, and interventions.

The average stay, he said in a letter, is 30 days, and he told the commissioners that the center’s clients would not be permitted to leave the center at will, would be continuously supervised, could not maintain personal vehicles at the property, and would have limited access to phones and computers.

The relatively remote location, said Axis chief operating officer Sam Dekin, is ideal for the spiritual aspect of treatment that Axis incorporates into its program, and allows clients to avoid distraction and better reflect on themselves.

No medical equipment or procedures would be available or part of the center’s programming.

For now, St. Mary’s retreats and trainings continue to occur on the site, which is zoned as “low-density residential,” which also restricts the property’s permitted uses.

Public commenters at the meeting, most of whom are neighbors of the seminary, argued against the changeover to a treatment center.

A considerable wrench was thrown into the commission’s deliberations when a few people brought up the fact that the original CUP has been lost sometime between its issuance and today.

What remains is a city staff report from 1962 concerning the CUP and a letter sent from the county a few days after its issuance confirming the permit.

“If this application, the staff report, and the county’s letter affirming the approval of a conditional-use permit in effect is what amounted to a conditional-use permit in 1962 for the County of Santa Barbara, then we’ll take that information, use it, and make the evaluation,” Assistant City Attorney Scott Vincent said.

Without the document, the commission’s conclusions about whether the treatment center substantially conforms with the CUP could theoretically be made by comparing Axis’ plans for a typical day at the center to a typical day at the seminary, the latter of which is presumably still in line with the now-54-year-old CUP.

If they match up well enough, the follow-up consideration is whether or not the “intensity” of the treatment center’s use exceeds that of St. Mary’s, which can be judged by what type of activities will go on at the site, with what frequency, and for whom.

Using this type of circumstantial approach “is not uncommon when we deal with historical record,” Vincent said.

The loss of the key document left some of the commissioners uncomfortable with coming to a substantial-conformance determination.

“This is very hard to triangulate, I can tell you,” Commissioner Deborah Schwartz said.

Commissioners John Campanella, Jay Higgins, Mike Jordan, and Sheila Lodge agreed that the circumstantial evidence amounted to a de facto CUP and that the proposed project conformed well enough to warrant approval.

Schwartz and Commissioner June Pujo were more hesitant, asserting that a more thorough search for documentation should have been undertaken.

Both commissioners argued that a more detailed project description from the applicant would make it considerably easier to determine whether or not the center conforms with the CUP.

They concluded that, if Axis’ description accurately reflects its plans, and the available methods for understanding the CUP are reliable, then they too could see sufficient conformity.

All the commissioners agreed, however, that the “intensity” of the proposed site use was below that of St. Mary’s, given, primarily, the treatment center’s less frequent trips to and from the facilities and the fewer individuals staying on site.

Jordan recommended that, for safety reasons, the applicant stick to vans instead of buses when transporting clients up and down the windy road to the site, and Campanella requested that no large events be held at the facilities in order to limit the intensity of the facilities’ use.

Santa Barbara Fire Department inspector Jim Austin told the commission that the property meets fire access standards and that, even though the current structure wouldn’t be compliant by today’s fire codes, it’s relatively safe for its age.

Assistant city planner Kelly Brodison said that, with the commission’s input, the next step would be for the community development director to work with the applicant to flesh out the details of their project.

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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