'Noleta' growth foes gain a victory


May 24, 2006 7:09 AM

After spending years fighting massive housing proposals in their backyard, Goleta Valley residents on Tuesday won a major battle with the county -- the Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to update the area's growth plan.

Supervisors put the update on their list of top planning priorities, a move that would allow residents and staff to craft restrictions on virtually any type of development in the Goleta Valley. The board has declined to schedule the update in the past due to financial constraints.

The vote caps a season of acrimony that has galvanized residents against housing proposals percolating through the county's Planning and Development Department since 2003.

Neighborhood activists successfully blocked proposals for hundreds of homes on local farmland, saying the area needs an updated plan since its existing growth map fell out of date when the city of Goleta incorporated in 2002. Driven by frustration, they forged a grass-roots advocacy group called the Coalition for Sensible Planning, whose members have fought fiercely to protect the quality of life in neighborhoods along Hollister and Patterson avenues, Calle Real and Turnpike Road.

Following intense lobbying by residents, supervisors approved the update as part of a larger work plan for the county's comprehensive planning division, which oversees long-term planning matters such as zoning, safety codes and building requirements.

Supervisor Susan Rose, saying she was "delighted" by the vote, thanked her colleagues for assenting to a key priority among her 2nd District residents.

"The community is very involved and is anxious to take the next steps," said Ms. Rose, whose district stretches from the Santa Barbara waterfront to Goleta. She leaves office in January.

The update would follow from a preliminary phase in the process called "visioning" that supervisors began earlier this year. The full update would begin early next year and take at least two years, staffers said. Ms. Rose or her successor would create an advisory group similar to the 12-person visioning panel. Supervisors must ultimately approve the plan.

After the vote, Coalition for Sensible Planning President Gary Earle expressed gratitude, but voiced skepticism.

Supervisors have not yet approved the $228,000 required for the update, Mr. Earle noted; and the recently approved state growth mandate contains provisions that could override community plans and install subsidized housing for low-income residents across the county, he said.

"We're pleased that the board is recognizing the right of communities to plan for their future," Mr. Earle said.

"However, the language of the (state's) revised housing element could allow them to override what they've given us."

A spokesman for the Homebuilders Association of the Central Coast said all communities should have the chance to plan for future growth, but he argued that they should not use the process to stop all development.

"You're planning for where you want to grow," said Homebuilders spokesman Jerry Bunin.

"It doesn't mean you want to stop development everywhere."

Supervisor Brooks Firestone, who is overseeing community planning processes in Isla Vista and Santa Ynez, questioned whether planners and community members could complete the growth blueprints more quickly. The Santa Ynez Valley plan, he noted, has been in the works for six years.

"I have observed a tremendous wheel-spinning and wasted effort," said Mr. Firestone, who encouraged planners to look for efficiencies in the process.

"Do you need all this planning and is it relevant?"

Other priority items for the division include completing the Santa Ynez Valley plan; streamlining rules for development on farmland; and updating the growth plan for Mission Canyon.

Staffers complained the division has suffered from retention problems stemming from its lower-than-average salaries in a high-cost area. Three out of 13 comprehensive planning employees have decided to leave the county recently.

"We're in an uncompetitive position," said county Executive Officer Mike Brown.

Supervisors also received a presentation on an effort to streamline the county's planning processes launched last year.

Deputy CEO Ron Cortez, Assistant Planning and Development Director Dianne Meester and Dave Cross, who heads a voluntary oversight committee, reviewed key reforms, including changes to the permit process for building on farmland and creating a fast-track process for obtaining individual permits for homes in larger housing tracks.

"It's so improved, it's incredible," Supervisor Joni Gray, said of the changes.

e-mail: bmcmanigal@newspress.com