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Fears sink art project in Santa Barbara

Times Staff Writer

SANTA BARBARA -- Call it the Santa Barbara meltdown.

Two of the city’s great preoccupations -- progressive politics and sky-high real estate values -- have collided over the last couple of months, yielding high drama over an art project that was to denote land imperiled by global warming with blue waves painted on downtown intersections.

“The community conversation turned into a frenzy,” said Mayor Marty Blum, one of the idea’s supporters. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”

Last week, the activist behind the city-backed wave project withdrew his plan, abandoning for now the idea of vividly charting just what would happen in Santa Barbara if Greenland’s ice sheets turn to slush. Opponents, who believed that the aptly named “lightblueline” project would sink property values on the wrong side of the line, claimed victory.

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“If you’re below the line, there’s a stigma,” said Jerry Beaver, a real estate developer who owns a warehouse and other property that would be swamped if, as lightblueline predicts, the oceans rise 23 feet over the course of time.

Beaver, a self-described rabble-rouser, said he had been preparing to sue the city over its approval of the project, which would have spanned 68 blocks.

In an appeal to a city commission, he said lightblueline might force sellers to disclose the possibility that their properties could one day be submerged. Acquiring loans and insurance on potentially doomed lots would be tougher as well.

Bruce Caron, the activist behind lightblueline, was incredulous. “That’s totally bizarre logic,” said Caron, who holds a doctorate in social anthropology. “When’s the last time that a temporary public art project affected real estate values anywhere on the planet?”

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When the City Council approved the idea in July, it earmarked $12,000 for it. After some outcry over the use of public funds, Councilwoman Helene Schneider raised the money from private sources.

Caron, who lives in Santa Barbara and works on educational programs for NASA, said he was inspired by Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth.” Caron conferred with earth scientists at UC Santa Barbara on where the water would stop if Greenland should thaw -- a scenario he said was raised in the U.N.'s recent global warming report.

The proposed project drew 140 volunteers, who were to paint light blue wave symbols 7 feet by 1 foot on the street at designated corners in October. Organizers expected that the paint and accompanying curb markers would be removed in five years.

“The message is that this is where we don’t want the ocean to be in the year 2500 -- but we need to respond to climate change right now, in the next decade,” Caron said in a phone interview. “That’s the message that got massacred.”

Caron said inflammatory coverage in the Santa Barbara News-Press turned local business interests against him. Scott Steepleton, the newspaper’s associate editor, did not respond to requests for comment.

City officials learned on Thursday that lightblueline is being scrapped.

“The conversation we were trying to have here would have become more and more a shouting match,” Caron said, “and the whole purpose in doing this would have been lost.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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