The Highway 101 project with sound walls.
The Highway 101 widening project with sound walls. (Courtesy rendering)

When the Highway 101 widening project eventually goes through Montecito, it won’t include sound walls. Expect chain-link fences with lots of vegetation.

The surprise announcement came Thursday evening when the 101 Project Team consisting of Caltrans, the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments and consultat Ayars & Associates revealed at a meeting that concrete sound walls would contribute to flooding and water rise and would not get approved by the county.

“We also studied alternate wall types and configurations, such as walls with flood gates, staggered walls with openings, shorter walls, and other alternatives that might alleviate this problem,” Kirsten Ayars of Ayars & Associates said. “Unfortunately, the options resulted in a rise in floodwaters during hydraulic modeling, did not meet freeway safety requirements, and/or would not meet the federal sound wall requirements.”

Instead of the sound walls, crews plan to install chain-link fencing planted with vines and landscaping.

The sound wall area would stretch from about Olive Mill Road to North Jameson Lane on the mountain side of the highway.

The Carpinteria-to-Santa Barbara stage is just the latest section of an overall effort to widen Highway 101, add high occupancy vehicle lanes, and make other road and ramp changes designed to improve commuter traffic between Ventura and Santa Barbara. The construction cost from Carpinteria to Santa Barbara is $700 million, including parallel projects such as interchange improvements.

The Highway 101 project has been in development for decades, but the county recently instructed the 101 Project Team to consider the sound walls in the context of the recovery mapping approved by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors after the Montecito debris flow in 2018.

The Highway 101 project without sound walls.

The Highway 101 widening project without sound walls. (Courtesy rendering)

“As water comes down in a large flood, comes down from the hills, through the neighborhoods and jumps the creek bank, it inundates this area,” Ayars said.

Showing photos from the debris flow, Ayars noted that the highway acts “like a bathtub” for all the water that comes down from the hills.

Project hydrologist Craig Edwards of Stantec said that the county’s recovery mapping assumes that all the bridges and culverts are plugged.

“The results of this extensive analysis was we could not meet the county’s requirement of no-rise in the flood elevation with standard sound walls,” Edwards said.

The team then analyzed several other options to limit noise, including sound walls on stilts, walls on private property, staggered walls, walls with flood gates and “severe receptors,” for which 11 property owners would be eligible for government funding to make improvements to minimize sound on their property. 

But for the overall project, the option favored by the group was fences with a high amount of vegetation to help shield the noise.

“The chain-link fence we are trying to make as aesthetically pleasing as possible,” Ayars said. “It’s not a standard chain-link fence. It does have the black coating on it, as well as vines.”

The fences must go through the Montecito Board of Architectural Review, and eventually the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission must decide on whether to grant a coastal development permit and approve the entire project. 

Sharon Byrne, executive director of the Montecito Association, called the project team’s new direction unexpected. The organization had seen several design reviews.

“We are very surprised by this, and appreciate county Flood Control is operating from an overabundance of caution and concern for the community,” Byrne said. “However, there are also other communities that have flooded and sound walls were constructed, so we intend to keep a dialogue going to best protect the low-lying communities that will experience significant sound from the freeway.

“We appreciate Flood Control’s concern for safety of the community, obviously. We also worry for adjacent neighborhoods’ exposure to the freeway-absent sound walls.”

Santa Barbara Barbara County First District Supervisor Das Williams said the situation is complex.

“I clearly want to be able to deliver sound walls for this area of Montecito, just as we have been able to for Carpinteria, but a 2-foot flood elevation change would make a substantial increase in the community’s risk of flooding,” Williams said. “I have asked Caltrans and SBCAG to wargame several other design options, but there does not seem to be a good option here. And there are other solutions for sound other than sound walls.”

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

Joshua Molina

Joshua Molina, Noozhawk Staff Writer

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at