Montecito area residents whose homes were hit by the debris flows in January got some help with rebuilding their lives May 15 when the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors modified development standards to ease the reconstruction process.
Supervisors unanimously approved the Planning and Development Department staff’s proposed amendments that ease the definition of “like for like” reconstruction and avoid the development review for homes damaged or destroyed in a disaster.
Although the amendments are specifically aimed at helping Montecito residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged in the 1/9 Debris Flow, they will apply countywide to any disaster that alters drainage flows or changes the area’s topography.
The Montecito Planning Commission and Board of Architectural Review and the Montecito Association wanted supervisors to delay taking action on the amendments or change them to require more review to assure rebuilt homes follow the Montecito Community Plan guidelines.
But more than a dozen residents who had homes damaged or destroyed by the debris flows, several of their neighbors and architects working with the homeowners urged the board not to delay.
Homeowners said from a psychological viewpoint, they need to put order back into their lives after five months of chaos.
“The one thing that’s really killing us is uncertainty,” said Jacques Marsalek, who said his house was wiped out and his family displaced, noting it could be two years before they can return to their rebuilt home.
Homeowners said they are up against deadlines when their insurance assistance will run out and are facing severe financial problems.
“If we can’t get back in our houses in the next year, we will be bankrupt,” said Jay Lott. “When the insurance runs out, people will be in financial ruin.”
Residents said they could be forced to sell their properties and move out of the community if they can’t expedite the process of rebuilding their homes.
“I just want my house back,” said Nicholas Lundgren. “I just want back in my house.”
Supervisors weigh in
Supervisors agreed that acting now to shorten and ease the permit process outweighed the issues of design, location and height changes that could otherwise result in a lengthy review procedure.
“There are a lot of residents who don’t have unlimited means,” said Board Chairman Das Williams, whose 1st District encompasses Montecito. “Any process that takes more than a year and a half threatens those residents living in our community.”
He said some residents not affected by the debris flow “may have a fear homes will be built too visible to neighbors. The alternative is that it may cause scores, maybe hundreds, to be de facto exiled from the community.”
Williams added, “If we force (residents) to sell out, they will sell to people with more money who will try to maximize the (development) envelope on their property.”
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann echoed that belief: “If they have to leave, we’ll get a whole new community different from the people who have been here a long time and are invested in the community.”
She said home reconstruction conflicts can be worked out without a lengthy review, hearing and permit process.
“We can do this by being good neighbors and working together,” Hartmann said. “We can’t have extended appeals.”
Second District Supervisor Janet Wolf said she understands the stress displaced homeowners are under because her family lost their home in the 1990 Painted Cave fire when her three daughters were under the age of 10.
“For me and my husband, it was important for us — and our kids — to get back to some sort of normalcy,” Wolf said, explaining that the process involved in rebuilding their home was long and arduous.
“I get it,” she said. “You just don’t want roadblocks. … Just let staff do as they usually do and get things moving.”
Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam said conditions today are not the same as they were before the 1/9 Debris Flow, and homeowners need to know what they are facing.
“The whole world has changed,” Adam said. “It may change again, too. It could happen again, and it could happen in a bigger way. In favor of certainty, I support the staff recommendation.”
Easing the way
As approved, the amendments ease the definition of a “like for like” reconstruction that exempts the project from planning permit and design review requirements.
They also allow the director of the Planning and Building Department to grant a de minimis coastal development permit waiver to properties in the Coastal Zone but outside the Coastal Commission appeals jurisdiction.
A homeowner now can rebuild a house at any location on a lot if it meets required setbacks from the top of a creek bank and reduces flood hazards.
The height of the new home also may exceed that of the original structure as measured from the post-event grade level to the roof peak — up to 10 percent as measured from the finished floor to the highest point of the structure.
No design review will be required for a relocated house or one with an increased height unless the director of the Planning and Development Department determines the exterior design is substantially different from that of the original structure.
For properties outside the Coastal Zone, the changes will become effective June 14; for properties inside the Coastal Zone, the changes won’t become effective until the Coastal Commission certifies the amendments.
Homeowners outside the Coastal Zone can launch the reconstruction process as soon as the new Federal Emergency Management Agency Recovery Map is released, which is expected around mid-June.