‘Slow Growth’ Has Come at a Cost in Santa Barbara
After a 1969 explosion beneath a Union Oil platform off Santa Barbara, stark images of dead birds and an oil-scarred coastline helped spark the nation’s environmental movement.
Protecting this picturesque stretch of California’s coast became a rallying cry, and it wasn’t long before this new commitment to conservation gave rise to a steely determination to keep residential developers at bay.
Three and a half decades later, the south coast of Santa Barbara County is still spectacular, a monument to the successful efforts of those who fought to control growth and its effects.
Preserving “our environment and our quality of life ... is like a mantra,” said Susan Rose, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, who represents a district stretching from the edge of Santa Barbara to Goleta.
But now this bastion of “slow growth” is learning that it comes with some steep economic, social and even environmental costs:
* Soaring housing prices. With the supply so limited, prices last year rose faster than in any other region in the state. The median price of a single-family house is now $1.1 million, out of reach for all but the well-to-do.
* Traffic congestion, energy consumption and air pollution. An estimated 30,000 commuters, forced by housing prices to live far from where they work, clog U.S. Highway 101 and choke side streets during peak drive times.
* An exodus of big employers. Half a dozen Fortune 500 companies have left for less costly locales. Almost every business and government agency that remains struggles with recruiting and retaining workers who cannot afford to live nearby.
* Altered communities. Poor families have been forced to double- and triple-up in rental housing. Unable to buy homes, many middle-class families with children have moved away. UC Santa Barbara economist Bill Watkins warns that parts of the south coast are at risk of becoming a “geriatric ghetto.”
* Spillover growth. Seventy-five miles away, in northern Santa Barbara County, houses are engulfing farmland. Sprawling Santa Maria is soon expected to pass Santa Barbara as the county’s most populous city. But prices are on the rise there, too, largely because of demand from Santa Barbara-area workers.
Many of these ripple effects could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.
“There are intended and unintended consequences to these growth policies,” said Dave Davis, who retired two years ago as Santa Barbara’s community development director and now heads the city’s Community Environmental Council. “It’s truly a mixed bag.”
The area from Goleta and Santa Barbara to Montecito and Carpinteria is one of the least affordable regions in the state, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. As of December, only 6% of the county’s households could afford to buy a median-price home there, less than in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But, as Rose knows firsthand, the issue of building more housing is “very contentious.” Her mere suggestion that more affordable housing be built in the Goleta Valley sparked threats of a recall.
Slow-growth advocates are unapologetic, saying they are leading a fight of statewide importance.
“It’s not just us,” said Gary Earle, president of the Coalition for Sensible Planning, which threatened to recall Rose. “It’s all of coastal California.”
The Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches, scenic views and open space make the coastal plateau a highly desirable place to live. But from 2000 through 2004, only one in five of the housing units built or approved in the county was located there.
In the face of strong demand and a limited supply, the median price of a single-family home shot up 35% in the last year alone, from $960,000 in December 2004 to $1.3 million at the end of 2005, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. It has since fallen slightly.
With prices so high, said Watkins, director of the economic forecast project at UC Santa Barbara, “everybody who has a home has a financial incentive to oppose growth here.”
Meanwhile, 30% of south coast workers -- many shut out of the local housing market -- buy homes elsewhere and commute long distances. They drive an average of 49 miles one way from northern Santa Barbara County and an average of 41 from Ventura County, according to the Coastal Housing Partnership, an employer-backed group.
From Ventura County alone, an estimated 17,000 people now commute each weekday to the Santa Barbara area. The county’s housing director, Ed Moses, who lives in Oxnard, said he leaves at 4:05 a.m. to get to Santa Barbara in 35 minutes, ahead of the traffic. “If I leave at 6,” he said, “it takes an hour or hour and a half.”
The backup worsens near Montecito. Residents of the wealthy enclave have fought for decades against widening the freeway, which is two lanes in each direction for 13 miles between the Ventura County line and Santa Barbara.
Caltrans District Director Gregg Albright recalls what happened in 1993 -- the last time the state proposed a widening.
“I was part of the project team, sitting in the Miramar Hotel, presenting a six-lane freeway.... The message was quite clear: ‘This is not what we want. Please leave.’ ”
A decade later, traffic has grown far worse. In response, the Santa Barbara County Assn. of Governments agreed unanimously last fall on a compromise called “the lane and the train.” The package calls for adding a carpool lane to the two-lane sections of freeway and commuter rail service between Ventura County and Santa Barbara.
But there is a huge potential roadblock: It would take at least $400 million to widen the freeway and $200 million for the rail service. And most of the money depends on an endorsement from two-thirds of the county’s voters as early as this fall.
Brett Buyan, 37, a county mapping technician, lives in Ojai and commutes to work in Santa Barbara with his wife. “We wanted to stay in Santa Barbara, but couldn’t afford to buy a house,” Buyan said.
They are among many middle-class workers in Santa Barbara to reluctantly pick up stakes and leave.
“And that gap between the rich and the poor is just going to widen,” Buyan said. “I don’t think it’s healthy.”
Neither does Davis, the former Santa Barbara development director. Three decades ago, he said, the city’s population was perfectly balanced between low-, moderate- and upper-income residents. Not anymore.
“The loss of the middle class ends up changing the culture of the community,” Davis said. Little Leagues and PTAs suffer. “It’s not the same.”
Economist Watkins said that retiring baby boomers are likely to hang on to their homes but that nearly “every job they leave has to be filled by those who can’t afford the housing.”
For employers, recruiting and retaining employees are growing challenges. In the last two years, two major corporate headquarters moved out of Santa Barbara: Fidelity Title and 500 jobs went to Jacksonville, Fla. Tenet Health Care and 115 employees headed for Dallas.
“Our biggest problem in California,” Fidelity chief executive William Foley told the business publication Site Selection, “is that people we wanted to move there couldn’t afford to live there.”
Remaining businesses have the same complaint.
“Housing problems make it difficult to recruit people here,” said John Wiemann, vice chancellor of UC Santa Barbara. “It’s a challenge, especially for younger faculty.”
The university has been trying to build about 240 units of faculty housing on campus for years. But it’s been slow going.
“The obstacles that we’ve encountered are the same that any developer trying to build in the coastal zone would encounter: sensitive habitat, wetlands and coastal access,” Wiemann said.
Westmont College also ran into hurdles when it sought to build affordable homes for its faculty: It took seven years to win approval for 41 units, said Randy Jones, director of campus planning. The Montecito college is in “an area where growth is not appreciated,” he said.
The Christian liberal arts college now wants to build an arts center, a science building and residence halls for 144 students. But that project has run into intense neighborhood opposition. One anti-growth website contains an editorial cartoon showing the Westmont College crest with high-rise buildings towering over homes. A caption reads: “God Gave Us An Inch -- We Took a Mile.”
Officials at Santa Barbara’s Cottage Hospital, which is undergoing a $550-million expansion, are fighting their own development battle. To help recruit nurses, technicians and pharmacists, the hospital wants to build 115 town house units where the shuttered St. Francis Hospital stands. But it faces strong neighborhood opposition.
Meanwhile, a major medical group recently proposed mortgage assistance for a group not normally in need of help: doctors.
The Montecito Fire Protection District also is in a fix. Half of its employees live outside the south coast area. The fire chief worries that far-flung employees won’t be able to get to work in an emergency.
So, the district recently spent $2.1 million for three small houses to rent to firefighters.
Possibly the greatest impact of the slow-growth movement on the south coast, however, has been elsewhere in the region.
Santa Barbara’s population grew by just 400 people from January 2001 to January 2005, according to state estimates. In the same period, Santa Maria added 10,200. Santa Maria accounted for nearly half the residential units built or approved in Santa Barbara County from 2000 through 2004.
“You can’t buy a home in Santa Barbara, so you buy it in Santa Maria,” said Marty Mariscal, a Santa Maria city councilman. The buying frenzy there has pushed the median price to nearly $500,000.
The surging population in the north county area also has produced a shift in political power. Three of the five members of the county Board of Supervisors now come from the more pro-development north county.
Fearful that pro-growth supervisors could usher major developers into the Goleta Valley, west of Santa Barbara, residents in part of that area voted in 2001 to form the city of Goleta.
“We have a community that wants to be very careful about growth,” said Goleta Mayor Jonny Wallis, a student at UC Santa Barbara during the 1969 oil spill.
But environmental politics have shifted. Conservation groups that were promoters of slow growth now often endorse “smart growth” -- targeted development along transportation corridors or in already dense areas.
Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center of Santa Barbara, said her organization would tend to support middle-income housing if it could be built without encroaching on agricultural land or opening new areas to development.
The hard-liners are neighborhood associations, homeowner groups and umbrella organizations like the Coalition for Sensible Planning.
“To me, the Santa Barbara south coast is the last livable community on the Southern California coast,” said coalition president Earle, who also was a student during the 1969 spill. “It is worth fighting to keep it that way.”
On its website, Earle’s group presents the choice as stark: between remaining the pristine Goleta Valley or becoming the next smog-choked San Fernando Valley.
Others say it’s not that simple. Retired county Supervisor Naomi Schwartz, a leading architect of the county’s slow-growth movement, now favors “smart growth.” She believes construction of housing for workers makes environmental and economic sense.
But “it’s not an intellectual” discussion, she said. “It’s more of an emotional conversation.”
Davis agreed, adding that coastal homeowners aren’t looking at the big picture.
“Existing homeowners in a neighborhood don’t want to see increased traffic. They would trade that for congestion on the 101 to Ventura or Lompoc. Regional congestion and pollution are out of sight, out of mind.”
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Santa Barbara: shrinking and growing
The population of Santa Barbara County’s south coast, a stronghold of slow-growth sentiment for years, dropped slightly in 2004. Residential development has been spilling over to the north county, led by Santa Maria, which may soon pass Santa Barbara as the county’s largest city.
*--* Population Total Change* Percent change* Santa Barbara County 419,260 +4,129 +1.0%
*--* Santa Barbara 90,518 -51 -0.1 Goleta 30,679 -94 -0.3 Carpinteria 14,340 -38 -0.3
*--* Santa Maria 88,793 +3,377 +4.0 Lompoc 42,320 +28 +0.1 Guadalupe 6,296 -21 -0.3 Solvang 5,429 -11 -0.2 Buellton 4,552 +91 +2.0
*--* Unincorporated areas 136,333 +848 +0.6
*Change in Jan. 1, 2005, estimates compared to Jan. 1, 2004.