A row of vehicles parked on Santa Barbara’s Riviera reflects the number of people who live in the area, which overlooks the city.
A row of vehicles parked on Santa Barbara’s Riviera reflects the number of people who live in the area, which overlooks the city. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

A new state law allows homeowners to split their houses into four separate units, but it won’t be legal in high-fire and extreme high-fire hazard areas of Santa Barbara’s foothills. 

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday voted 7-0 to create an emergency ordinance making the homes in the foothills exempt from the law. In addition, any homeowner who splits the lot and rents the units must rent at least one at or below moderate-income levels.

“There are collective impacts of density in high-fire and extreme high-fire areas that create health and safety hazards that cannot be reasonably mitigated,” Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said.

Santa Barbara’s foothills include multimillion-dollar homes, some of which have sweeping views of the city and ocean, but the roads to those lots are narrow. Many have parked cars lining the streets. If a fire were to break out in the wilderness, fears are rampant that flames could hop from house to house, without giving residents enough time to evacuate along the narrow, often congested roads.

Adding more density to the neighborhoods would only exacerbate the problem, according to Sneddon and several others. 

“Lot splits decrease defensible space,” Sneddon said. “The foothills are characterized by wind, canyon fire-prone vegetation, and ingress and egress is severely limited with increased parking in narrow spaces.”

The new law — state Senate Bill 9 signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 16, two days after he fended off a recall election — essentially abolishes single-family zoning throughout California, and allows homeowners to split their lots into four units. The law aims to force cities that have not built enough affordable housing to respond to the state’s chronic housing crisis.

Most of the debate Tuesday night centered on whether the high-fire zones should be exempted or if those neighborhoods should also experience the impact of the bill and include more housing density.

Although he ended up voting for the ordinance, Westside District 3 Councilman Oscar Gutierrez initially questioned the idea of exempting the high-fire foothill zones. Gutierrez asked whether the city could regulate who lives in those areas, or whether that would be “discriminatory.”

He began his comments stating that he “might take some flak for what I am about to ask.”

“Is there anything we can do as a governmental body to try to regulate the age of people or the health conditions, to try to regulate where they live, out of the safety, out of their safety?” Gutierrez asked. “Is that something we can do, or is that discriminatory?”

Mayor Cathy Murillo quickly interjected, “I don’t think we can. I just don’t think we have authority.”

City Attorney Ariel Calonne added: “Honorable mayor, we agree with you.”

Many of the people who own homes on the Riviera are retired and elderly.

Gutierrez then tried to explain himself.

“It just makes me wonder, you know, if you are at a certain age, or certain point with your body, that maybe living in a dangerous area probably isn’t a good idea, but that’s just my two cents,” Gutierrez said.

Among the speakers was former Santa Barbara Mayor Sheila Lodge, who said she has lived on the Riviera for nearly 50 years, and in that time she has evacuated four times because of fire. She said that evacuating the area could be dangerous in the event of a fire. 

“It is critical for the safety of those who live in those areas that density not be further increased, beyond what is currently allowed,” Lodge said.

Councilman Mike Jordan was nonplused by the situation.

“I really believe that the impact of SB 9 has been overstated and exaggerated,” Jordan said. “By the time you start to look at these places and look on the ground, everyone will have an example of where one was able to go, but you will not see the mass confusion of lot splits and the mayhem that seems to be proposed will happen.”

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