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Supervisors Spurn Botanic Garden’s Appeal

On 4-1 vote, board upholds landmarks commission's denial of Meadow Terrace project.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to uphold the denial of a half-finished construction project at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden.

The decision, made after a parade of more than 50 public speakers, affirmed the unanimous denial of the project in September by the county Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission.

Called “Meadow Terrace,” the project in question is a 4,200-square-foot, three-tiered terrace with sandstone retaining walls and pathways near the botanic garden’s main trail.

In the context of the garden’s vast, 65-acre expanse, the area of dispute — about a tenth of an acre — is a speck on the map. But preservationists and neighbors argue it is located too near the garden’s signature design, created in the 1930s, of dirt trails weaving through native California vegetation.

Tuesday’s decision heightens the uncertainty surrounding the project, which had gotten a green light from a county official last year. Thus far, roughly $90,000 worth of stone wall work has occurred on what was to be a new terrace for events at the garden, located at 1212 Mission Canyon Road.

On Tuesday, all of the supervisors agreed with the preservationists and the landmarks commission except for Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who cast the lone dissenting vote.

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“This is a very modest project,” Firestone said. “I’m worried about the process — which is so important to this county — being brought into disrepute.”

Firestone added that the halted project could make other organizations located on historic sites think twice about supporting proposals to turn their properties into official landmarks.

“If the landmarks commission becomes unreasonable and unwilling, they become a liability,” he said.

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Janet Wolf
In explaining her vote, Supervisor Janet Wolf deferred to the landmarks commission.

“HLAC does seem to have a role in making this determination, because it is part of the historic piece of the garden,” she said. “We gave them the authority to make these decisions. … I am satisfied with their outcome.”

On Tuesday, both the garden and the preservationists were well-represented by speakers.

“Which came first, the garden or its many neighbors?” asked Virginia King, speaking in defense of the garden. “Almost all of those neighbors moved there after the Botanic Garden’s inception more than 80 years ago.”

Speaking in favor of the preservationists, Barbara Bonadeao said the 23-acre meadow area is known for its “rustic, meandering” dirt trails and native plants, “free of walls and containers."

“All this is being destroyed by pavers, lighting and other accoutrements that neither blend nor conform to the original design,” she said.

About a year ago, the garden received a special designation from a county staff member that allowed for a quick start, exempting the garden from the extensive governmental approval process that is required of most projects.

But the official didn’t realize the project was a matter of public controversy, meaning it did not qualify for the special designation. The official also didn’t know about an unusual county resolution declaring the trail concept a historic landmark. (Typically, landmark status is reserved for buildings.) Thus the county Planning Division reversed course, freezing the project in its tracks.

On Sept. 10, the garden presented its plans to the landmarks commission, which rejected the plan in a unanimous vote. The garden then filed an appeal to the Board of Supervisors.

In December, the landmarks commission took a look at the revised plans, but again denied the project on a 5-4 vote. On Tuesday, however, that decision was rescinded because of a procedural error of the commission.

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