The Montecito Planning Commission on Wednesday unanimously supported a development plan to keep debris nets in Montecito creeks for three additional years, which could protect the community against future debris flows in burn areas while the fire-scarred vegetation within the watershed recovers.
Six debris control nets now are scheduled to be removed by Dec. 21, 2023.
Montecito Planning Commissioner Charles Newman recused himself from a vote and the remote hearing, which lasted about 90 minutes.
The nonprofit Partnership for Resilient Communities received a county emergency permit for 11 flexible debris-catching nets in December 2018, and it has installed six nets in three canyons north of the Montecito community. There are two nets each in Buena Vista Creek, Cold Spring Creek and San Ysidro Creek.
The organization was conceived in the wake of the massive 2017 Thomas Fire and the deadly flash flooding and debris flows on Jan. 9, 2018, in Montecito.
The Partnership for Resilient Communities secured funding for, as well as all of the necessary permits to install, six debris nets in the hills above Montecito.
“We are proud of our work on this project,” said Pat McElroy, the nonprofit organization’s executive director and a former Santa Barbara city fire chief. “We recognized we had a unique project and we needed to take extremely seriously the trust that had been placed in us by the various agencies and permitting authorities.”
The debris control nets received positive remarks from the Montecito planning commissioners.
“This is a remarkable project and a remarkable coming together of many people in the community to put together a comprehensive plan to protect Montecito,” first vice-chair Bob Kupiec said. “I loved hearing it the first time. It reaffirms my faith that people can come together and do extraordinary things.”
Suzanne Elledge, founder of Suzanne Elledge Planning & Permitting Services, noted that the temporary, multimillion-dollar project was intended to last about five years. Her presentation included an October 2018 letter from project officials.
“When the watersheds are revegetated to pre-Thomas Fire levels, estimated in approximately five years depending on natural drought and vegetation regrowth cycles, the net systems will be removed entirely, generally by helicopter, under the supervision of biologists,” the letter states.
The steel mesh nets double the capacity of current catch basins and reduce debris flowing into residential areas in Montecito, according to the Partnership for Resilient Communities.
The Montecito Fire Protection District and the county Flood Control District support keeping the nets in place for three more years.
“The debris flow nets are an important part of the flood control system,” Montecito Fire Chief Kevin Taylor said during the three-minute public comment period. “The other main components in addition to the nets are the basins, the creeks and the channels.”
The 2017 Thomas Fire burn area on the hillsides just above Montecito is vulnerable to additional debris flows five years after the blaze, Taylor said.
The nets are essentially a private flood control project that is intended to reduce the potential for debris flows and associated flooding during the years-long watershed restoration, county Planning and Development Department staff wrote in a report.
“While the watershed is recovering very well, and is actually a bit ahead of schedule,” Taylor said, “it’s not yet completely recovered.”
Nets were installed in three Montecito creeks in spring 2019 with an emergency permit that required maintenance and removal after one year. A follow-up emergency permit was approved in December 2019 that allowed the nets to stay in place for an additional one year.
Montecito Planning Commissioner Susan Keller said the collaborative project “accomplished what they intended in a way that was quite remarkable, incredibly thorough, and a model.”
Chairwoman Donna Senauer called the net project a “true partnership of the community and of public agencies. It’s commendable.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.