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Friday, January 18 , 2019, 8:24 pm | Fair 54º


In Aftermath of Disaster, Sharon Byrne Helping Montecito Association Evolve as Community Nucleus

New executive director transforming organization with fresh partnerships, alliances and leadership vision

Sharon Byrne Click to view larger
Sharon Byrne, new executive director of the Montecito Association, is undaunted by the challenges Montecito faces as it recovers from the catastrophic losses of the last year. “This community wants to be together, to belong,” she says. “The potential is clearly here to bring everyone together. This is my skillset, and something I am most excited about for Montecito.” (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Less than three years ago, Sharon Byrne was at the center of a political storm on Santa Barbara’s Eastside. Today, she’s helping to rebuild Montecito after an unprecedented — and unimaginable — storm of destruction.

In the aftermath of the December 2017 Thomas Fire and the deadly flash flooding and debris flows on Jan. 9, 2018, Byrne has emerged as one of the leaders of Montecito’s recovery. It’s a role that she never sought, rather it seemed to find her, through a series of unexpected twists and turns.

“I get out of bed every day excited to think that I might be in exactly the right place at the right moment to help pull this all together,” she told Noozhawk.

Byrne pivoted from working as the executive director of the Milpas Comunity Association and then the Coast Village Association to her latest job: executive director of the Montecito Association, a role she assumed in September.

“It’s very much like Milpas,” she said of the nonprofit membership organization representing more than 1,000 Montecito residents, property owners and businesses in the middle of extraordinary crisis.

“There’s a magic storm of talented, smart, resourceful people here who want to get on their feet and do stuff. These people are not waiting for the government to rescue them. They are building out infrastructure by themselves.”

Byrne’s new job is one she appears uniquely qualified for. She was recruited because of her leadership after the twin disasters when she worked as an intermediary between Coast Village Road merchants and the morass of government entities with various levels of involvement and responsibility.

Her predecessor at the Montecito Association was among the hundreds of residents who lost their homes that fateful January morning, and access to the organization’s Upper Village office was cut off as part of the disaster exclusion zone. The association turned to Byrne for assistance.

“All of a sudden every night I was communicating with, like, 500 people,” she recalled.

Byrne was on the phone daily with emergency management officials, including Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, whom she urged to “lock down” Montecito to prevent looting.

“I was very lucky because of years working on Milpas I had all these public safety connections,” she said.

Byrne says she was inspired by state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, a Montecito resident who spoke to the Coast Village Association three days after the disaster, pointing out that the community’s greatest strength — and weakness — is its quaint, rural nature.

“I could see that what would be needed coming out of 1/9 was a more cohesive community that could pull together, and (create) better warning systems and infrastructure that wouldn’t fail in the next disaster, whatever it may be,” she said.

In February, Byrne started getting pulled into multiple projects that were all aimed at one overarching mission: Making Montecito more resilient.

“I realized Coast Village would only be a minor player in these due to our small geographic footprint,” she said.

Montecito, she notes, was brimming with resources and talent, and was getting on its own feet quickly.

She began working with the Partnership For Resilient Communities, which is focused on installing steel mesh nets to hinder debris flows in the canyons and creeks above Montecito and creating emergency warning systems. She’s coordinating with the Montecito Microgrid Initiative, which is working to deliver local energy and power to emergency facilities during outages and system failures.

Byrne also wants to help make Montecito water independent.

“Montecito relies too heavily off State Water and isn’t recycling wastewater,” she said.

Byrne tapped into her political consulting reservoir to run the successful Committee for Montecito Water Security campaign, which resulted in the November election of three new Montecito Water District board members and two new Montecito Sanitary District board members.

Water independence fits into her overall vision for stronger emergency preparedness.

“The county is clearly working to improve their protocols and messaging, but we can step up and bolster our preparedness as a community, too,” she said.

Byrne is looking to the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association to learn how that organization distributes walkie-talkies and conducts fire emergency drills. She wants to work with ham radio operators, and map out a plan.

“You have to think about what you’d need in a world with no power, no running water, and no communications, like if you were cut off from evacuation routes and needed to shelter in place, with an uncertain extraction date,” she explained.

“We need to be prepared and fully connected as a community so that everyone knows what to do and where to go.”

Most important, Byrne said, she wants to continue to thread the community together, something that will be needed to gain support for many of the emergency preparedness intitiatives ahead. A Montecito Common Table potluck dinner in July attracted far more people than she expected.

“That and subsequent events showed me this community wants to be together, to belong,” she said. “The potential is clearly here to bring everyone together. This is my skillset, and something I am most excited about for Montecito.”

Dana Newquist, a Montecito resident for more than three decades and one of the newly elected Montecito Sanitary District trustees, served on the Montecito Association board for six years. He said Byrne has quickly won the confidence of many people in the community and credits her “ability to work on both sides of the fence.”

“She’s done a great job for a short time that she has been there,” he added. “One of the most important things to know is who the players are in Montecito.”

To that end, Byrne says she appreciates the nexus between residents and local businesses, noting that many shops serve as de facto gathering spaces. Their survival is vital to the health and outlook of the community.

She plans to work with Visit Santa Barbara to bring events to the Upper Village that “pull our community in with family-friendly fun events that introduce them in new ways to the merchants here.”

Cori Hayman, an outgoing Montecito Association board member and chairwoman of the land-use committee, calls Byrne “compassionate, brilliant and driven” and expresses confidence that she can help Montecito become more resilient “while respecting the community’s rural nature.”

“I think she can do that,” said the newly elected Montecito Water District trustee. “She has the energy, the skill, the compassion, and the public relations expertise. She is perfect for this position.”

Byrne carved out a reputation as an effective neighborhood activist when she was with the Milpas Community Association. She helped businesses push back on the rise in homelessness in the area, and demanded that City Hall pay more attention to the Lower Eastside. She organized volunteer litter cleanups and graffiti removal.

She also coordinated community events such as “The Taste of Milpas,” which drew visitors eager to sample the diverse food offerings available in the neighborhood. The event earned the association a national “Neighborhood of the Year” honor.

“My life has been ... discovering kind of who you really are and what you are made of,” Byrne said. “I think my special genius is uncovering the capacity of a community to do things it never felt were possible.”

Not all of her efforts were welcomed. Over time, some activists believed she was pushing a top-down approach, and trying to fix parts of Milpas that didn’t need fixing. The organization reached a crossroads in 2015, with an incident that still reverberates in the community.

Byrne led a drive to create an Eastside Business Improvement District, which would have collected fees from businesses to fund marketing and promotional services, events, security and graffiti removal.

PODER (People Organized for the Defense & Equal Rights of Santa Barbara Youth) staged a protest at Taqueria El Bajio because its owner, Santos Guzman, supported the district. The group characterized the business improvement district proposal as a plan to push out existing businesses in an attempt to gentrify the neighborhood.

Protesters gathered outside the restaurant, shouting at employees and calling them “sellouts,” according to Santa Barbara police reports. In response, Byrne encouraged locals to show their support for El Bajio by dining there that evening. Hundreds of people heeded the call, including several City Council members.

Byrne said she chose to ignore the protesters and instead embrace Guzman.

“In all of my life I have never seen hate defeat hate, the only thing I have seen defeat it is love,” Byrne said, paraphrasing the Rev. Martin Luther King.

But the business improvement district campaign fizzled and the Milpas Community Association slowed down.

“Sharon was a great positive influence for the Milpas Community Association,” said Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware and a former association member. “She was a very successful leader who worked extremely well communicating with the city on the organization’s and community’s behalf.

“She worked well with both residents and business people in the Milpas community and did a great deal to bring harmony to the community.”

In 2016, Byrne got a call from Bob Ludwick, a former Milpas Community Association board member, asking if she would come work for his new group, the Coast Village Association.

“We were reinventing ourselves after years of near-death as an organization,” he said. “I could not have found someone with more skill and organization.”

Then Jan. 9 happened.

“Sharon said ‘I know how to do this,’” Ludwick said.

Megan Orloff, who chairs the Montecito Association’s outreach community and came up with the “Montecito Strong” marketing message for T-shirts and caps, calls Byrne a “ball of knowledge and energy” who will help the organization confront the many challenges and opportunities ahead.

“Sharon will be foundational to helping our community navigate those discussions,” she said. “She will be an advocate for our residents, a supporter of our local businesses and a friend to the Montecito community.

“One of the things that struck me most about 1/9 and its aftermath was the unity that emerged across our small community. That desire for community and togetherness is still strong, and I anticipate that Sharon and the Montecito Association will play a key role in advancing that momentum and creating opportunities for our community to come together, to share in and shape what we all love about the place we call home.”

Byrne believes it was her destiny and fate to help Montecito at this time.

“It’s really building the community back together,” she said. “People have moved out. Some people have died. Some people are going to rebuild and some people are not.

“I feel the community dynamic and demographic is going to change and I think we need to be responsive to that. I want to see us evolve.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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