San Marcos Growers in the Goleta Valley is one of the sites proposed for agricultural rezoning.
San Marcos Growers in the Goleta Valley is one of the sites proposed for agricultural rezoning. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara County won’t make the state’s deadline to update its Housing Element — which means come February, the county will relinquish local control of some development projects to the State of California.

“Due to the amount of work involved in developing the site’s inventory and developing potential rezones, the county is not going to meet this deadline,” said Jessi Steele, one of the project planners for Santa Barbara County’s Housing Element. “As a result, on Feb. 15, 2023, the county will be subject to the state law that requires the county to permit multifamily residential developments by right, ministerially, if they include 20% or more lower-income affordable units.”

The failure to meet the deadline is a significant development with consequences that could ripple far and wide. Even though county planners knew that the Housing Element needed to be updated every eight years, the staff started its sites inventory review only in February and completed it in November.

It began working on the actual Housing Element update in October, and it plans to continue writing the chapters through early 2023. The county issued a press release two weeks touting its public outreach process, but the document made no mention that the county would fail to meet the state deadline.

The proposed rezoning of agricultural sites for housing near Goleta and Carpinteria has set the stage for a thrilling political territorial battle over density, traffic, open space — and egos clashing over which entities know best about how to plan a community.

The state requires the county to update its Housing Element every eight years and find sites that could accommodate new housing. The state requires that Santa Barbara County planners find land, or rezone it, to build up to 5,664 new housing units between 2023 and 2031. The sites must be identified and approved by the state.

Steele made the declaration that the county would fail to meet the deadline at last Thursday’s Housing Element meeting. Several people criticized the county for missing the deadline and for proposing a rezoning of the agriculture sites.

Now, the county plans to hold public hearings through the summer of 2023 and then adopt the document. The county has until Feb. 15, 2024, to adopt the rezones identified in the Housing Element.

Among the major sites on the table for rezoning include 95 acres where the Glen Annie Golf Club sits that could result in 1,536 new units, 28 acres at the San Marcos Growers 1 site that could result in 821 units and 16 acres at St. Vincent’s that could lead to 175 new units. A Santa Barbara County Juvenile Hall rezone could result in 75 new units. In addition, the county has proposed rezoning the land where the St. Athanasius Church sits, for potentially 400 new units.

Overall, 11 sites are proposed for rezoning in the Carpinteria Valley, 11 sites in the Eastern Goleta Valley, and four more sites in the unincorporated area between Goleta and Santa Barbara. 

Lisa Plowman, director of planning and development, said many jurisdictions throughout the state are having trouble meeting the state’s February deadline because the state keeps changing requirements.

“All the jurisdictions are doing the best they can to get through the process within the deadline,” Plowman said. “But we are all sort of facing similar circumstances, and we have been doing what we can.”

Carpinteria Valley resident and journalist Annie Bardach spoke at the meeting and raised questions about why the county was proposing rezoning of agriculture sites in Carpinteria when there’s already massive traffic in the late afternoon.

“Via Real is a one-lane road in each direction, and there is no way to open that up,” Bardach said. “You put all this traffic there, what are you doing to the First District, the South Coast, not to mention, all the promises that have been made for decades about preserving agricultural land?”

Bardach also noted that none of the cannabis farms in the Carpintera Valley were proposed for rezoning.

Steele said the county would be analyzing transportation and traffic impacts as part of the environmental impact report.

“As a general statement, the county was trying to avoid converting agricultural lands of all kinds,” Steele said. “We were specifically starting our search within the urban areas and trying to avoid the conversion of ag lands for a variety of reasons. We did not single out in anyway specifically avoiding cannabis farms, but we were trying to avoid ag in general.”

She said the county planning staff will make a recommendation about sites and the details of the Housing Element, but ultimately the Board of Supervisors will decide the fate of the sites.

At the meeting, a member of the public asked why the county took so long to release the sites and map, when they were supposed to originally go public in August.

“It has been an extremely difficult, challenging process to identify enough sites and to do it in a manner that takes into account environmental constraints, existing densities, the desires of the property owners and so many other factors,” Steele said. “When we initially set out to identify rezone sites, we were hoping it was going to be easy, but the fact of the matter is there’s not a lot of vacant land in the urban area in the county.”

So, she said, the county took longer to release the proposed map, but that the sites proposed for rezoning were “very thoroughly analyzed.”

Further complicating the meeting, three members of the Goleta City Council — Kyle Richards, Stuart Kasdin and Mayor Paula Perotte — spoke and said they wanted a role in the county’s Housing Element discussion.

“We, over the past 10 years, have provided over 1,500 units in and around the city, and we’re talking again about providing another few hundred shortly,” Kasdin said. “We have protected our ag lands. We have been pushing to fill the mandates that we have been given by the state and the county in terms of focusing on infill, protecting our agriculture lands and creating greenbelts.

“Now, the county, it seems, is intent on undoing all of that work.”

Kasdin noted that there’s already heavy, intense traffic on Highway 101 near the Storke Road and Glen Annie Road exit, which leads to the Glen Annie Golf Club.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” Kasdin said. 

He also pointed out that UCSB’s student housing plans will exacerbate the traffic in the area.

“Adding a huge chunk of development, without regards to the impacts of the area, seems questionable,” Kasdin said.

The proposed rezoning comes at a time when the county and most of coastal California are struggling with a major housing crisis. The South Coast has a severe jobs-housing imbalance, and about 15,000 people commute in and out of Santa Barbara daily from the North County and Ventura County.

Steele said the county is facing a shortfall of units across every income category.

“The Housing Element must plan for everyone in the community, including seniors, families and workers,” Steele said. “It also needs to allow for all types of housing to be built, including houses, apartments and farm labor housing.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.