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ON THE BRINK

Is the South Coast becoming L.A.? 11/28/99

By MELINDA BURNS
NEWS-PRESS SENIOR WRITER

 To our readers: Over a period of several months this fall, Senior Staff Writer Melinda Burns asked 35 leading environmentalists to sum up the gains and losses of the South Coast movement during the 20th century and assess the problems that will confront the community for years to come. Today's article offers a synthesis of the views that emerged from these discussions. Santa Barbara: The birthplace of the environmental movement; the city that squared off against Big Oil and won; the town that had a vision not of progress as it was commonly understood, but of red roofs, and Spanish-style buildings, and gracious parks, and trees from foreign lands. What will happen to Santa Barbara in the 21st Century?

  What will happen, indeed, to the orchards of the Carpinteria and Goleta valleys, the wooded estates of Montecito, the ranches that stretch from Coal Oil Point to Gaviota and beyond -- all that remains of a past century when people were bound to the land?

 These are questions that trouble environmentalists today, as they contemplate a future in which a sea of people could engulf the benignly beautiful South Coast.

  There are 208,000 people here today, and 26,000 more are projected to come by 2015.The Creeks and beaches are routinely posted with warnings because of high levels of bacteria. The Air quality frequently does not comply with state standards for ozone. Rush-hour traffic is approaching gridlock. Dozens of local species of animals and plants are on the federal lists as endangered or threatened.

  Goleta, formerly "The Good Land" -- a place so fertile that pumpkins grew to 250 pounds and onions got as big as basketballs -- has been paved with a six-lane freeway, giant overpasses, walled-in luxury housing tracts and a "big box" shopping mallcenter.

  In Santa Barbara, a time-share condominium project for visitors is slated for the same waterfront where,in 1924, a group of civic-minded businessmen leaders, concerned about development, banded together to create what is now Chase Palm Park.

  On the eve of 2000 and the millennium to follow, then, there is a growing sense among environmentalists that this magnificent coast with its Spanish dream city is on the cusp -- that either it will be overwhelmed by the pressures Los Angeles has succumbed to which Los Angeles has succumbed -- or people will wake up like Rip Van Winkle to save what they regard as the magic and romance of the place. In interviews with the News-Press this fall, 35 local environmentalists spoke of the future with a mix of hope and despair. It took a major earthquake in 1925, they said, for Santa Barbarans to plan their city from the ground up as no city had been planned before. It took a disastrous oil spill in 1969 for citizens to defy the oil corporations and win national legislation for environmental protections.

  What will it take now, they asked,to preserve the fast-fading small-town charm of the South Coast in the face of a projected 75 percent increase in California's population by 2040? Who will be the next Pearl Chase to chart a course into the unknown?

  "I feel very strongly how off-track things have gotten," said Paul Relis, who led the successful campaign in the 1970s with the late Bob Easton to scale down what is now Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort. The citizens eventually won land from Parker for a waterfront park, the present Chase Palm Park extension.

  "We were an extremely cutting-edge community 25 years ago," Relis said. "But the spirit and substance of environmental protection seems no longer to be a guiding force. It's more a period of accommodation, a whittling away, sometimes in little pieces and sometimes in big chunks, of the quality of what we know as the Santa Barbara area. If it goes on for another five years like this, it's going to be scarcely the community we knew.

  "One of the great things I remember about the Õ70s is that we posed the question: A city isn't an inevitability: a city is a matter of choice. What do we want to be?"

  By dint of an unshakable commitment spanning 30 years, residents here have reached a kind of treaty with the giant oil corporationsoil industry -- an understanding that if oil development occurs, it will be on the community's terms. With that kind of commitment, environmentalists say, the South Coast could yet be saved from the voracious Los Angeles megalopolis.

  "It means backing off and allowing some parts of the environment to be untouched," said Roderick Nash, a UCSB history professor who wrote the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights in 1970, famously stating: "We propose a revolution in conduct toward an environment which is rising in revolt against us."

  "We have to say no to things that we want to do," Nash said. "Every time we put in a subdivision, we're impacting other forms of life. I would like to think that an affluent community like Santa Barbara could afford to extend its ethics and be a leader.

  "If we could look at dolphins and whales and great white sharks as members of our community to be respected as such, we would make a giant leap forward. We've been lousy neighbors, terrible roommates.Steelhead trout should be in local streams because they have a right to be there, to share the planet. Maybe it's Nnature's turn, next."

'WE'RE LOSING IT'

 In an atmosphere of increasing alarm about sprawl, a local campaign to preserve 45 miles of the Gaviota coast from Coal Oil Point to Point Arguello appears to be gathering steamgaining momentum. There is talk of circulating a ballot measure, similar to measures that have been approved in Ventura and Napa counties, requiring a vote of the people to convert farmland to housing tracts. And a bond measure that would provide funds to buy up open space will likely appear on the November 2000 ballot.

  "The economic pressures are going to be huge," said Don Olson, city planner. "Santa Barbara is on the fringe of Southern California. What we have seen there is sprawl. It's always the next valley, the next valley, the next valley. We're just the next valley.

  "Here we are, reveling in our city, saying, 'Isn't life in Santa Barbara wonderful, and don't we have a great quality of life' -- and meanwhile, we're losing it. We may already have lost it."

  Something must be done --and soon -- to get county government out of Goleta, environmentalists say.With a population of more than 80,000 people, Goleta is the largest unincorporated area in California, nearly the size of Santa Barbara -- and its fate rests with five county supervisors, only one of whom lives in Goleta,in the wealthy enclave of Hope Ranch.

  Furthermore, because the North County is growing faster than the South Coast, the balance of power on the Board of Supervisors is likely to shift to the north after the 2000 census and reapportionment, resulting in even less representation for Goleta.

  Suggestions for change include annexing Goleta to Santa Barbara to form one city; or incorporating Goleta as a separate city, with some form of regional leadership with Santa Barbara to solve traffic, air quality, water and housing problems. In exasperation, western Goletans have already have begun a petition drive for a city which that would not include Isla Vista or neighborhoods east of Kellogg Avenue.

  "Our community was in status-quo-induced slumber when the bulldozers showed up," said Mike Wondolowski, the president of Citizens for Goleta Valley, and a leader of the Goleta Roundtable, a group that is studying a wide range of governance options. "We want local control over land-use planning. The status quo is not a choice and most people now recognize that. Goleta is ready to make a decision."

  Hal Conklin, the former mayor of Santa Barbara and the president of the California Center of Civic Renewal, a statewide nonprofit group, said: "Goleta will have such a negative impact on Santa Barbara:; It would be better to have them inside the tent than outside. I would create a regional governance that stretched from Montecito to Ellwood,with a Santa Barbara Regional Council of nine members and a mayor."

  In this way, regional government is being viewed as a way to rescue both Santa Barbara and Goleta from the effects of rapid urbanization. In the last 12 years, Santa Barbara has built just over 1,300 homes and apartments -- fewer than are proposed in a single project in Goleta, the 1,500-unit Campus Pointe and North Willow Springs tracts on Los Carneros Road. And with one 500,000-square-foot regional mall, now under construction at Storke and Hollister roads, Goleta will outstrip the last 10 years of commercial growth in Santa Barbara.

 Downtown Santa Barbara is fairly densely built, at 12 homes or apartments per acre. But the county has historically allowed one, three and four homes per acre in Goleta -- a sure-fire formula for sprawl. And the arrival of state aqueduct water in 1996 lifted a 24-year ban on new water hookups in Goleta, removing a major barrier to new construction.

  Not that it will be easy for Santa Barbara and Goleta to break their habit of mutual suspicion. Goletans resent being a dumping ground for housing that Santa Barbara does not want. And Santa Barbara, if joined to Goleta in one city, would inherit a $40 million backlog in road and bridge repairs -- the legacy of an underfunded county administration. Santa Barbarans fear, too, that they will lose control over their fate if they join with Goleta.

  But to get stuck in the rancors of the past would be suicidal, says Dave Davis, the community development director of Santa Barbara.

  He advises: "Don't look back, folks: Look forward. In the past, the City of Santa Barbara was the dominant force in the county and the dominant political power on the South Coast. The ethics of the city became the values of the South Coast, with planning and growth controls to ensure a better quality of life. But in the next 20 years, the city's voice won't be heard by anybody. We'll be overwhelmed by Goleta.

  "If Santa Barbara does it right but the region's out of control, what does it matter? It's a dangerous future. I think it's frightening. Somehow, a good, sincere dialogue and discussion at the community level, about thefuture of the South Coast, leading to a referendum, has to take place."

  In 1974, the citizens of Santa Barbara, alarmed by the potential for growth of their scenic town, did just that. Led by Relis and UCSB professors Harvey Molotch and Rich Appelbaum, a community task force spent a year studying the effects of future growth on Santa Barbara. The "Impacts of Growth Study" led to zoning changes that took 23,000 potential homes off the books.

  Two years later, the citizens of Santa Barbara voted -- quixotically, as it turned out -- to endorse a population cap of 85,000 as part of the city charter. Today, 92,000 people have squeezed in. Plus, an estimated 20,400 visitors are on the South Coast daily.

  To stave off sprawl, the authors of the 1974 report are calling for a new study, this time for the entire South Coast from Carpinteria to Goleta -- and a moratorium on new development until the research is done. Such a study, they said, would attempt to project a "carrying capacity" for the region and determine what level of growth could take place without destroying the environment.

  "We used to be pioneers," Appelbaum said, "but I don't think that's true anymore. We need some leadership to say, 'Let's take stock before things overwhelm us."

  In addition to Relis, Appelbaum and Molotch, the proponents of a South Coast study include Henry Kramer, a retired executive of the Image Research Corp.; Jennifer Bigelow, of the Agoura Group, a community planning firm; and Mickey Flacks, a director of the Citizens Planning Association. Flacks led the grass-roots coalition that elected Santa Barbara's first slow-growth City Council in 1973.

  "This is a fragile environment that can easily be destroyed, and we're well on the way to doing so," she said. "A hot investment market and increasing population pressures are bad reasons to allow untrammeled growth. We've lost sight of that, seemingly. It is a precious place and it should be treated with great care."

'A MATTER OF CHOICE'

 Now more than ever, environmentalists say, it is time to think big and stop focusing on the project-by-project battles.

  "Nothing short of breakthrough will work," Molotch said. "Santa Barbara was a leader in the 20th Ccentury in the sense of figuring out what a city needs to be and how a city could be better. We pioneered the first architectural board of review and zoning ordinances. The way the oil industry was forced to operate here changed the way it operates in the United States and the world."

  Are things better now, or worse than in 1900? At the turn of the century, hundreds of oil wells were operating off piers on Summerland's beaches. Yet 100 years later, the debris from this industrialization still lies buried in the sand, awaiting removal at great cost to the taxpayers.

  Many of the crises now facing the South Coast appear intractable: It may take 50 years to clean up the high levels of bacteria in the beaches and streams. It will take decadesto clean up Unocal's underground oil spill at the Guadalupe Dunes, one of the largest onshore spills in U.S. history.

  "We are emptying our waste through storm drains into the ocean," said Robert Sollen, the author of "An Ocean of Oil: A Century of Political Struggle Over Petroleum Off the California Coast."

  "We're just beginning the research that's going to tell us what's wrong and what we have to do. We did everything cheap for a century. Now restoration is going to be expensive. We will spend the first half of the next century cleaning up."

  Transportation also looms as a major problem, for no sooner is a new freeway overpass completed than it fills up at rush hour: the Patterson Avenue bridge over Highway 101 is just one example. There are daily snarls on Storke Road; Fairview Avenue; Winchester Canyon Road;101 through the downtown; and the Five-Points roundabout on the Lower East Side. The Sunday afternoon traffic south on 101 in the summertime is stop-and-go for miles out of town.In the summer, the Sunday afternoon traffic headed south on 101 is stop-and-go for miles.

  "It's clear we cannot make wider roads to fix the problem," Wondolowski said. "The South Coast has a finite car capacity. It's just a narrow ribbon of mesa between the mountains and the ocean. There's a huge amount of money that would need to be spent to make public transit workable."

  Conklin, the former mayor, suggests that someday Santa Barbara might have to consider a proposal now under discussion for Yosemite National Park -- that visitors should park their cars outside and take a bus in.

  "You can put stores in neighborhoods and provide alternatives to driving," he said. "You can create the look you want. There's a way to do this. But it's not going to stay the rural Santa Barbara that's sort of romanticized in people's memories."

  Finally, Conklin and others say that the housing crisis for the poor and middle class must be resolved so that the people who clean the hotels, teach the children and put out the fires can afford to live here. There is disagreement, however, over whether to promote higher residential density as a way to provide more homes.

 Marc McGinnes, a founder of the Environmental Defense Center, a public-interest law firm in Santa Barbara, believes that increased density in the urban areas can help save open space elsewhere.

  "We're struggling to find our way," he said. "We are unimaginably affluent and privileged to live in Santa Barbara. I'm willing to accept a lessened environmental quality in order to provide for the needs of everyone in our community."

  Connie Hannah, a director of the Santa Barbara League of Women Voters, said: "I don't think that a small, circumscribed area like the South Coast can be expected to take all the people who will want to live here, or no one will have any decent quality of life."

  And Dave Bearman, a Goleta community activist, said that building smaller houses and placing controls on resale values could go far to provide affordable housing.

  "We need to recognize that human beings have not gotten that much larger since the 1940s," he said.

 In assessing the shape of things to come, David Landecker, a former city councilman, takes heart from the overwhelming defeat of Fess Parker's Measure S at the polls this month. Parker wanted to build a 225-room hotel next to the Doubletree on the waterfront without undergoing city review.

  "It proved that Santa Barbara is a town of people who want to be involved in the future of their community," said Landecker, who ran the No on S campaign.

 "What Santa Barbara offers the world is the opportunity to face the tough issues and actually come up with some innovative ways of approaching them. If we can't do it here, where we're relatively small and we have an environmental conscience, it will never be done anywhere else.

 "We just have to believe in ourselves."

 In the early 1900s, as the historian Kevin Starr has noted in his book, "Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s," there was nothing to distinguish Santa Barbara from Bakersfield or Fresno or even the entire Midwest except its spectacular location on the channel. Lower State Street, Starr wrote, was just a disorderly array of sheds, awnings, hitching posts, obtrusive signs and overhead wires.

 Over a century, it has been the citizens themselves who made Santa Barbarawhat it is today; who came together and, with their humanity and utopianism and dedication and hard work, formed a vanguard -- not once, but twice, in the 1920s and in the 19Õ70s.

 "Do it again, Santa Barbara," Molotch said. "We can give the world something it has never seen before." Melinda Burns' e-mail address is mburns@newspress.com.