Council says its hands are tied
The Santa Barbara City Council has denied an appeal that would have revoked approval for a proposed four-story development on De la Vina Street.
The denial means the project can move forward, and council members said their hands are tied for procedural reasons.
In the city’s quasi-judicial process, council members heard the appeal by resident Donna Mrotek, who objected to the Architectural Board of Review’s final approval of a 21-unit, four-story, mixed-use development at 825 De la Vina St.
The concerns listed by the appellant (and approximately 40 neighbors standing behind her in a protest on Monday) included neighborhood compatibility, inadequate setback distances, potential construction noise/vibration impacts and inconsistency with design guidelines.
However, these concerns were not ultimately what made the decision for the council, despite whether the council members agreed with the concerns. Instead, the council was tasked with determining whether the ABR’s final approval — the decision being appealed — matched the ABR’s previous project design approval, during which size, bulk and scale were OK’d. Ms. Mrotek and her neighbors were concerned about those details.
Council members said they could not make the finding that the two approvals did not match up. After hearing out the appellant and her neighbors who spoke up in public comment, council members said that the appeal came a little over two months too late, after the ABR had already issued project design approval.
If the City Council would have tried to go outside its purview and challenge the project’s design approval, the city would likely face litigation and the subsequent financial risks, according to the city attorney’s office.
In her presentation, Ms. Mrotek cited several instances in which she argued the city misinformed the public about how to participate in meetings and voice their opposition before the project design was approved. She noted the public was not notified about the project as a whole until after the ABR’s meeting on Jan. 29, when the project was granted project design approval. That decision solidified all of the details with which Ms. Mrotek and her neighbors had concerns.
The appellant pointed out that the minutes from that meeting did not indicate anywhere that there would be a 10-day appeal period after the ABR granted the project design approval.
“I was unable to appeal at any of the appropriate times because of lack of notification I should have gotten about the meetings,” Ms. Mrotek said.
Besides her general concerns with the property, Ms. Mrotek voiced concerns that story poles (preliminary poles to show the structure’s height) would have made a difference in notifying the public. She said the criteria was met to use story poles in this situation, but the ABR waived that requirement.
Furthermore, the appellant took issue with the fact that ABR members referred to two single-story homes near the property — one of which is her own — as “just sheds.”
She also noted a mistake in Tuesday’s meeting notice, which said that the City Council meeting would take place “Thursday, June 22, 2021.” June 22 was Tuesday.
“The fact remains: We did not receive notifications of meetings; notifications that we did get were wrong; and the lack of story poles held back information to the public,” Ms. Mrotek said. “As one who is in close proximity and shares a property line, I have the right to stay informed, and I followed the directions I was asked to make that happen.
“For this reason, I feel the approval of 825 De la Vina is not valid, as we were denied our right to speak,” she continued. “Therefore, approval should be revoked, new meetings set so we as citizens can attend and actually voice our needs for size, bulk and scale compatibility in the neighborhood, and keeping skyline and mountain views and ensuring our rights for privacy.”
Numerous speakers during public comments agreed with Ms. Mrotek. They cited their own instances of lack of notifications or difficulties accessing information on city documents and its website, www.santabarbaraca.gov.
As the City Council deliberated its next moves, members all agreed that the fault was on behalf of the city’s procedures as they currently exist. Council members said the procedures were followed correctly and that they could not hold the developer accountable for flaws in the city’s procedures.
They said while they heard the complaints of the citizens, their hands were tied.
Councilman Mike Jordan pointed out that the first mailing detailing the project was sent out back in April 2020 — nine months before the project design approval.
“To me, the key issue here is when is a material moment for this project and what did we do at that time?” he said. “It’s apparent to me that we did a mailing almost a year before that, but we didn’t do a mailing right before the key approval time where somebody could sit up and take notice, and if they didn’t like it, they would see they had 10 days only and not miss that.”
Both Councilman Jordan and Councilman Eric Friedman said during the meeting that they are committed to working in their respective committees on the issue of sending notices.
Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon said she feels “so strongly that the public is not fully informed unless there are story poles” to detail the real height and visual impact of the building. She cited that renderings can scale the size from what direction it’s being looked at, and buildings can look taller or smaller or other buildings can be faded out or trees can be removed.
Councilwoman Sneddon also spoke to the importance of making the minutes accurate and clear, saying, “A lot of people don’t have time to sit there and watch hours of meetings and pinpoint exactly the moment when something is announced.”
She said clarity is especially important if minutes aren’t published until weeks later.
The councilwoman added that the fact that the ABR’s final approval even has the option to be appealed is a “flaw in the process,” since nothing can really be changed about the project itself at that point.
Mayor Cathy Murillo concluded the discussion by noting that some of the neighbors were involved in the meetings back in spring 2020, so it’s “not as if people weren’t engaged.
“This is a quasi-judicial proceeding, and it’s regulated by our municipal code and ordinances. And we followed these technical procedures that regulate our land use decisions,” the mayor said. “The ABR is made up of people who do very careful review — I hear more complaints that they’re tough on development, so if they decided that there was no story pole needed, I have to respect that. But I am supportive of the improvements to the process.”