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Bridge Work at Beach Relief for Some, Painful for Others

County vows Gaviota Creek span will help trout and ease flooding. Foes see a boondoggle.

November 13, 2005|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Building a $5.5-million elevated bridge and roadway across the mouth of Gaviota Creek is either a costly boondoggle to benefit the wealthy, or a project needed to protect nearby residents and restore steelhead trout in the rural Santa Barbara County stream.

Critics say the 1,000-foot span bisecting Gaviota State Park would spend scarce U.S. disaster funds, while harming valued wetlands and exposing wildlife to fast-moving traffic.

But local, state and federal officials insist the project is needed to address chronic flooding, restore natural creek flows and allow residents of exclusive Hollister Ranch to go to work and school during winter storms.

Santa Barbara County planning commissioners will weigh the competing views at a hearing Dec. 14, with the project expected to go to the Board of Supervisors in early January. If approved, the bridge could be built in 18 months, beginning in June.

About 30 miles west of Santa Barbara, the project consists of a 256-foot bridge and a 782-foot approach road, both elevated 12 feet above the existing bridge and roadway, and twice as wide.

The new access road would still lead from U.S. 101 to the state park's beach campground and to the gated, seaside Hollister Ranch subdivision of expensive homes and 100-acre parcels.

Tearing out the old bridge, damaged in a 1998 flood, and elevating the new one would allow the creek to flow freely, officials said. It would also allow 175 full-time and 300 part-time residents of Hollister Ranch to come and go during big winter storms that now close Gaviota bridge to cars.

Three-quarters of the project's $5.5-million cost would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which responds to disasters nationwide, including the recent Gulf Coast devastation. The Governor's Office of Emergency Services would provide the rest.

Gaviota Creek qualified for FEMA funds after the flooding that damaged the bridge was declared part of a national disaster. Money was set aside to fix ongoing safety hazards. If not spent, it would be returned.

"It's absolutely a safety issue," said Joy Hufschmid, project manager for Santa Barbara County. The county proposed the project five years ago after environmental obstacles blocked reconstruction of the damaged bridge.

"When it rains, the schoolchildren and the people that work -- the only way in and out is to walk across a railroad trestle," Hufschmid said. Some residents also drive across the bridge when it's swamped with 2 to 3 feet of rushing creek water, she said.

Attorney Kim Kimbell, a Hollister Ranch resident, said at least half a dozen cars had been washed off the crossing in recent years, and one person drowned. Flood waters close the road about 10 times each rainy season, he said.

But Mike Lunsford, president of Gaviota Coast Conservancy, said the project is not needed and grossly out of scale in a state park. It should not qualify for FEMA assistance, he said, because it is mostly a convenience for Hollister Ranch residents, who should wait for stream flooding to abate to cross. The project's effects on wildlife and rare coastal wetlands also have been understated, he said.

"With many other high priority projects emerging from the hurricane disaster in the Gulf region, it would be a travesty of reason for this project to be funded," Lunsford wrote in a recent letter to FEMA.

However, he added in an interview, "our group wouldn't be involved if this wasn't going to change the wetlands environment so much."

Lunsford said that 25 to 30 acres of coastal wetlands would be lost behind the 12-foot-high access road that would serve as a dike across the creek floodplain. The road, despite several culverts through it, would block wildlife migration and the ever-changing flow of creek water, he said.

"This is a quiet country road," he said, "that meanders through a wetlands area in a state park that's going to be turned into a fast-moving urban boulevard. So the danger of cars striking Western pond turtles and red-legged frogs is greatly increased."

The speed limit on the existing road is 15 mph, but the new one is designed for 25 mph traffic.

The statewide Urban Creeks Council also opposes the project because of wetlands damage, "and because it's overkill for the problem they are trying to solve -- it's absolutely too big," said spokesman Eddie Harris.

Lunsford said the county sought federal funding for the Gaviota Creek bridge, but not others washed out by storms. He said it was because of the political influence of Hollister Ranch residents, who include Hollywood and music industry celebrities.

The county's Hufschmid said that's nonsense. "I don't think FEMA is beholden to any residential association. They allocate funds based on where there's the greatest need."

It's such a large project, she said, because state and federal agencies won't fund it unless it's designed to current engineering standards and able to withstand a 100-year storm.

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