Santa Barbara City Council passed a measure Tuesday suspending the zoning Information reports program and initiating amendments to zoning rules.
Zoning information reports are required when property changes hands to ensure the property conforms with zoning regulations. But the ZIR ordinance has come under fire for the high cost of the reports and their inconsistencies that some say are a detriment to the housing market in Santa Barbara.
The council originally considered eliminating the ZIR program, voting last week to initiate a countdown of 10 days at the end of which the issue of repealing the program would be placed on the ballot for a special election on Aug. 9.
However, City Attorney Ariel Calonne told the council Tuesday that the change to zoning law would have to be consistent with Santa Barbara’s General Plan, something that cannot be fixed by election time. Mr. Calonne said he and his colleagues found language in the General Plan’s housing element that he believes makes zoning information reports mandatory.
A ballot measure like the one proposed would be nullified if it is not consistent with the General Plan, Mr. Calonne said.
“If it is indeed inconsistent then the council can’t adopt without it being void, likewise the voters on election day, were they to approve the measure, the council and my office would be in the uncomfortable position of explaining to the voters what they just did wasn’t valid, or potentially is invalid,” Mr. Calonne said.
Looking to avoid wasting taxpayer money on the election, Mr. Calonne suggested the council move to instead modify the ZIR program.
“The city has amended the ZIR ordinance many times since the General Plan was adopted. It would be possible to amend the ZIR ordinance without amending the General Plan, provided the council can conclude the changes are consistent,” said Mr. Calonne.
After hearing from the public, including the Santa Barbara Association of Realtors and ex-city employees, the council passed the motion with the required supermajority of 5-2. Mayor Cathy Murillo and City Councilmember Kristen Sneddon were opposed, continuing their dissent from last week.
Ms. Murillo defended the utility of ZIRs when casting her vote.
“I’d like to be the voice of the homebuyers who have benefited from the ZIRs over the years, and the residents whose neighborhoods have been protected from illegal construction and add-ons. I’d like to thank our city staff who has worked really hard over the years, in good faith, to do the right thing under our policy to promote the wellbeing of our residents and our neighborhoods,” said Ms. Murillo.
Ms. Sneddon raised the issue of voter participation and questioned whether the public would be sufficiently involved if the council simply amended the ZIR program without bringing the issue to the ballot.
“We need to really honor our General Plan. That is a public process with stakeholders; took six years to implement, has a housing element, is passed by the state. We really need to hold that up because that is our document that we’re holding to,” said Ms. Sneddon.
She did agree with her colleagues that the ZIR program is in need of repair.
“I completely agree that the ZIRs have been mishandled. They cause a lot of detriment. They’re not evenly meted out and that needs to be fixed,” said Ms. Sneddon.
Supporters of the measure praised the effort as a way to provide more information to the public while cutting the $270,000 the city spends on ZIRs every year.
“The upshot is; there’s going to be more information for more people and that allows better decision making. This doesn’t legalize zoning or coding violations. It doesn’t have that impact, so I think that’s one thing we need to repeat. If you’re building something that’s illegal or unsafe you are still breaking the law. There’s still enforcement opportunities out there,” said Councilman Jason Dominguez.
During public comment, Roy Harthorn, an ex-building official for the city, warned that the ZIR program records have been compromised and in disarray since the 1970s.
The council should make as much information available for home owners and buyers as possible, Mr. Harthorn said.
“Really what they need is an informational handout of how you can get the information and where to look for it. Just a road map where all the archives are, where all the bodies are buried,” said Mr. Harthorn.
The measure suspending ZIRs and amending zoning rules will be sent to the Planning Commission, where there will be opportunities for public input. The non-binding recommendations from the commission could be sent to the council by Sept. 24, Mr. Calonne said.