It’s been 17 years, so what’s another two weeks?
Goleta ran out of time after more than three hours of talk, banter, and arguing over the topic of development creek setbacks, in an odd meeting that Councilman Roger Aceves said was nothing like he had ever seen in his more than a decade on the City Council.
“To debate a legal opinion in open session, I have never seen this done before in my 13 years up here,” Aceves said. “I am just mind-boggled. I have never seen it before. I have never seen the public debate of two attorneys, based on the professional opinion of our staff, and I am sorry it went there.”
Goleta is trying to pass its own zoning ordinance that regulates rules for building heights, inclusionary housing, environmentally sensitive habitats, creek setbacks, residential front yard setbacks, signs, parking, open space, and a variety of other topics.
Since the city incorporated in 2002, it has been relying on county rules. The 111-page document is intended to provide, clarity, consistency, transparency and flexibility.
“You are operating with a county zoned ordinance that is not at all consistent with your General Plan,” said Goleta’s City Attorney Michael Jenkins. “It makes the city vulnerable. You should have a zoning ordinance consistent with your General Plan.”
The controversy centered on the city attorney’s disagreement with attorneys with the Environmental Defense Center, which was representing the Urban Creeks Council. Representatives from the Environmental Defense Center wanted the city to wait before adopting the ordinance, so that the city could collaborate with the California Coastal Commission and local environmental groups on environmentally sensitive habitat area issues, including development creek setbacks.
“Goleta’s creeks are truly special environments which support rare species, form wildlife corridors, filter pollution, provide for recreation, and enhance our city’s aesthetics,” said Brian Trautwein, environmental analyst and watershed program director for the EDC.
Jenkins and city staff Tuesday night proposed adopting the zoning ordinance, but leaving out any changes for the coastal zone for now; This would allow the city more time to work with the Coastal Commission, but still pass a zoning ordinance that covers about 80 percent of the city.
Jenkins told the council to move ahead now because he believes that the inconsistency between the city’s General Plan and the lack of its own zoning ordinance could expose the city to litigation, specifically a legal interpretation of what constitutes a legal taking of someone’s property if they aren’t allowed to build within a certain distance from a creek setback.
The current creek setback rules say development must be a minimum of 100 feet away, but with the ability to go as close as 25 feet, depending on the circumstances of the development. Trautwein raised concerns about having two sets of creek setback rules for inland and coastal streams.
The meeting took an unusual turn when Goleta Mayor Paula Perotte allowed Linda Krop, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Center, to return to the microphone after the public comment period closed, to broker a deal with Jenkins.
It’s not typical for members of the public to be allowed to negotiate a compromise or debate legal language, and the City Council by law is supposed to discuss potential litigation and matters of legal exposure during closed session.
When it appeared that a council majority was ready to support the city attorney’s plan, Krop swooped in from the front row of the audience to the microphone for a second time during the evening, with Perotte’s permission, and asked Jenkins to delete his definitions section of what constituted a legal taking in streamside protection areas. Jenkins relunctantly agreed.
“You could amputate it (the zoning ordinance language) without the patient dying,” Jenkins said.
Aceves was not happy that the EDC was setting the tone for the discussion.
“(Jenkins) is the one we pay,” Aceves said. “He is the one that is going to defend us. EDC is not going to defend us. I have to support what our city attorney is saying. If we are going to have a legal debate in open session I would rather we pull it.”
Members of the City Council were flustered by the debate.
“This is a struggle,” Councilman Kyle Richards said.
“This is one of the hardest decisions I have had to make in a long time,” she said.
Councilman James Kyriaco said Jenkins is a “perfectly good attorney,” but that the council in this case should listen to the EDC because of the organization’s environmental expertise.
“We are the gateway to Gaviota,” Kyriaco said. “We are the Goodland. What is the future of Goleta? What does Goleta want to be known for? What kind of life do we want to have in Goleta? The more space you have between a creek channel and your home, the better. It is safety argument.”
Councilman Stuart Kasdin struggled to make sense of it all because everyone agreed that they wanted to be environmentally sensitive and support strong creek setbacks.
“I don’t understand why this is contentious,” Kasdin said. “I don’t understand why there is this big gap.”
The issue is set to return to the council on Dec. 17.