On May 15, the county Board of Supervisors will consider amending the county zoning ordinance to streamline and speed the gargantuan task of rebuilding Montecito in the wake of the catastrophic debris flow.
The proposed change is in the spirit of helping 216 families, whose homes were destroyed or damaged on the fateful morning of Jan. 9, to get their lives back soon as possible.
In the spirit of Pearl Chase, however, Montecito’s leaders are asking the county to hold off on voting so soon.
“This is a Pearl Chase moment for resiliency,” said Joe Cole, chairman of the Montecito Planning Commission, referencing the legendary Santa Barbaran who helped transform the city after a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in 1925.
As residents and political leaders begin to grapple with the enormous undertaking of rebuilding Montecito after the catastrophe, the debate over how fast to move forward provides a glimpse at the complexity of the task, and the many factors – aesthetic, economic, engineering, geological and political, for starters – that must be balanced in the process.
“We want to move forward expeditiously, but also judiciously,” said Commissioner Susan Keller. “I want to be sure we both try to help those homeowners who are suffering, as well as avoid any abuse of the system.”
What happened last week. On a 4-to-0 vote last week, Montecito’s planning commission recommended that the county postpone any ordinance amendments for debris flow victims until after the Federal Emergency Management Agency finishes a “recovery map” of the devastated area, citing concerns for neighborhood safety, privacy and aesthetics.
“The county needs an overall strategy that would include a threat analysis, early warning monitoring, slope protections and neighborhood zoning based on actual hazard maps,” said Cole, a 40-year resident of the wealthy, unincorporated community,
“We need to use FEMA mapping to figure out where the real risks are,” Cole said, noting that the county has advised homeowners to hold off on rebuilding until the maps come out. The proposed zoning amendments, he said, don’t “move the ball forward as far as making the community safer as a whole.”
But the fast-track schedule already is in place.
On Wednesday this week, the county Planning Commission is scheduled to make its own recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors. If the board approves the amendments next month, they will go into effect on June 14, about the same time the FEMA map is expected to be released.
The map not only will delineate the boundaries of new “hazard zones” in Montecito during 100-year storms, but also show projected floodwater elevations.
Waiting for FEMA could push a vote on the ordinance amendments well into September, county officials said – and for Supervisor Das Williams, who helped draft the amendments, that’s too long.
“I’m totally scratching my head,” Williams said.
“The Montecito Association and the majority of people at the forums have been asking for the county to help them rebuild,” he said. “If all of these property owners are rebuilding through our normal discretionary process, it would take many, many years. It would bankrupt a lot of these small landowners. It would be tantamount to exiling many of them.
“I will admit that this requires us to have a bit of a change in our attitude,” he added. “It requires us to think about safety as an incredible planning consideration, more important than some aesthetic consideration.”
A case study – and a hypothetical. At last week’s Montecito Planning Commission meeting, Jacques Marcillac of 220 Olive Mill Road, whose wife, Allison, is executive director of the Montecito Association, spoke for the fast-track amendments.
The clock is ticking, he said, for the insurance money his family receives for temporary housing.
“We need to get back in our house,” Marcillac said, adding, “I guess I’m the owner of dirt; the house is no longer there.
“I have four daughters and they need a home. By the time the map comes out, it’s going to be six months from the debris flow. We only have about 17 months of additional living expenses that are included in our insurance. After that time, we have to pay for a mortgage on a house that doesn’t exist, and a rent for my family of six.
“The priority that should be higher than anything else should be getting Montecito back to where it was before Jan. 9,” Marcillac told the commission.
Among a handful of letters to the commission echoing these sentiments, Sharon and Jason Hughes of Montecito wrote, “As a member of a compassionate community, we would like to make the usually daunting timeline streamlined for those who lost homes on 1/9.”
However, the commission said it seeks to balance the needs of neighbors who lost their homes with the needs of neighbors who, as the recovery proceeds, might find themselves living next to a much higher building or one that has been moved closer to them.
In a hypothetical scenario, Cole showed how a 30-foot-high house, pre-debris flow, could potentially be rebuilt nine feet higher with minimal review, under the proposed amendments.
If there is mud on the property four feet high, Cole said, and FEMA’s new floodwater elevation is set at that level, the county would require the first floor of the new house to be two feet higher than the four feet of mud.
In addition, the roof itself could be raised by three feet because of a 10 percent “bonus” in interior height that is allowed under the existing “like-for-like” ordinance.
And, should the county proposal move ahead, it could all happen with a simple building permit, no notice to neighbors and no right of appeal.
Toting up the damage. As of today, 181 homes in Montecito remain red-tagged or yellow-tagged because they were damaged on Jan. 9, county records show.
Red means they are not safe to enter and yellow means that only limited entry is safe.
Another 35 homes were completely destroyed by the river of mud and boulders.
This totals 216 damaged or destroyed homes -- or five percent of the 4,400 homes in Montecito -- not counting 59 red and yellow-tagged homes that have been upgraded to green tags since Jan. 9, meaning it is now safe to live in them. By comparison, in Santa Barbara, five percent would be 1,770 homes.
In addition, about 117 garages, guest homes, bridges, pool cabanas and commercial buildings in Montecito remain destroyed or damaged.
Since Jan. 9, records show, the county has issued zero permits to debris flow victims for complete buildings, 19 permits for minor repairs and 119 demolition permits.
Fire vs. flood. After the Tea Fire of 2008, a county “like-for-like” ordinance successfully streamlined the rebuilding of many of the 210 homes that burned in the foothills of Montecito and Santa Barbara.
This meant that if the owners built back essentially the same house in the same location, they were exempt from time-consuming and expensive zoning permits, design review and neighborhood appeals.
But a debris flow can wreak more havoc than a fire.
The surging river of mud and boulders that came down the mountainside above Montecito on Jan. 9, jumped creeks, carved new creek beds, blocked bridges and swamped entire neighborhoods.
Significantly, county regulations for new homes near creeks require a 50-foot setback from the bank; new homes also must be built at least two feet above base flood elevations.
The new proposed like-for-like ordinance amendments would allow zoning permit and design review exemptions for victims of debris flows – even if they have to elevate their homes on top of four feet of mud, or they have to move their home because the creek itself has moved.
If the amendments are approved, such projects could proceed with a building permit from the county – that is, with minimal review and no notice to neighbors.
“For safety reasons, we don’t want them to build in the same spot,” Williams said. “I can take responsibility for this idea, whether people love it or hate it.”
'Unprecedented situation.’ Montecito leaders say there simply is too much chaos and confusion and too little information to move ahead rapidly with any ordinance changes. For starters, they note, the whole community is potentially at risk of another debris flow for the next three to five years, depending on how fast the vegetation comes back on the bare and brown slopes of the Thomas Fire burn area above town.
“If everybody moves right back now, it’s going to be dangerous,” Cole said. “I don’t know if the county is thinking about that.”
The Montecito Association, an influential homeowners’ group, voted 6-4 earlier this month to ask for a delay in a final county vote on the zoning amendments until after the FEMA map comes out.
Speaking to the commission last week, Cori Hayman, an association board member, said there was “no correct answer” for how to proceed.
“We are under an unprecedented situation with a complicated, costly, emotionally difficult, lengthy recovery,” she said. The association board, Hayman said, was “specifically concerned that this commission and the public would not have sufficient information with which to make informed recommendations.”
Architectural perspective. Four members of the Montecito Board of Architectural Review also weighed in at last week’s commission meeting, arguing for more design review, not less.
Why “perpetuate a bad building” under the like-for-like amendments when the review board could improve it and “make sure the community is well-served?” asked board member Bob Kupiec. The board and the commission could schedule extra meetings to speed the rebuilding effort, he said.
In an interview, Kupiec, an architect and Montecito resident, noted that the City of Santa Barbara found its identity after the 1925 earthquake through an intentional redesign with Spanish colonial architecture and red-tiled roofs.
“The reinvention of Santa Barbara did not happen by accident,” Kupiec said. “Nothing’s changed. The reason there’s a board of architectural review is to safeguard your community. If you start moving buildings around on a site, indiscriminately, you have effects on your neighbors."
The commission and the architectural board agreed that exemptions from zoning permits and design review should be retained for “true” like-for-like rebuilding in Montecito – for example, if a property owner proposes no changes in elevation, size or exterior design.
Amending the amendments? If the Board of Supervisors decides to go forward now with the “like-for-like” amendments, the commission said, they should make some of them more restrictive – for example, by requiring design review for property owners who want to change the exterior design of their rebuilt homes in any way.
The proposed amendments would require such review only if the new exterior is “substantially different.”
In addition, the commission said, the county should in some cases eliminate the 10 percent height bonus for homes that are rebuilt at higher elevations. And the county should require both design review and zoning permits for homes that are moved out beyond the mandatory 50-foot setback from a creek bank, commissioners said.
Otherwise, they said, property owners – including speculators – could build anywhere they wanted, potentially intruding on a neighbor’s privacy or obstructing public and private views of the ocean and the mountains.
“I realize people have gone through trauma and lost your house,” said architect Kupiec. “But you have a commitment to your neighbors to do the right thing. There’s no silver bullet out there.”
Melinda Burns is an investigative reporter based in Santa Barbara.
Images: All photos by Mike Eliason, Public Information Officer for Santa Barbara County Fire Department, except aerial view of Montecito the day after the deadly Jan. 9 slide (Matt Udkow, SBCFD)