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`Slow Growth' Has Come at a Cost in Santa Barbara

March 06, 2006|Jeffrey L. Rabin and Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writers

After a 1969 explosion beneath a Union Oil platform off Santa Barbara, stark images of dead birds and an oil-scarred coastline helped spark the nation's environmental movement.

Protecting this picturesque stretch of California's coast became a rallying cry, and it wasn't long before this new commitment to conservation gave rise to a steely determination to keep residential developers at bay.

Three and a half decades later, the south coast of Santa Barbara County is still spectacular, a monument to the successful efforts of those who fought to control growth and its effects.

Preserving "our environment and our quality of life ... is like a mantra," said Susan Rose, chairwoman of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, who represents a district stretching from the edge of Santa Barbara to Goleta.

But now this bastion of "slow growth" is learning that it comes with some steep economic, social and even environmental costs:

* Soaring housing prices. With the supply so limited, prices last year rose faster than in any other region in the state. The median price of a single-family house is now $1.1 million, out of reach for all but the well-to-do.

* Traffic congestion, energy consumption and air pollution. An estimated 30,000 commuters, forced by housing prices to live far from where they work, clog U.S. Highway 101 and choke side streets during peak drive times.

* An exodus of big employers. Half a dozen Fortune 500 companies have left for less costly locales. Almost every business and government agency that remains struggles with recruiting and retaining workers who cannot afford to live nearby.

* Altered communities. Poor families have been forced to double- and triple-up in rental housing. Unable to buy homes, many middle-class families with children have moved away. UC Santa Barbara economist Bill Watkins warns that parts of the south coast are at risk of becoming a "geriatric ghetto."

* Spillover growth. Seventy-five miles away, in northern Santa Barbara County, houses are engulfing farmland. Sprawling Santa Maria is soon expected to pass Santa Barbara as the county's most populous city. But prices are on the rise there, too, largely because of demand from Santa Barbara-area workers.

Many of these ripple effects could not have been foreseen 30 years ago.

"There are intended and unintended consequences to these growth policies," said Dave Davis, who retired two years ago as Santa Barbara's community development director and now heads the city's Community Environmental Council. "It's truly a mixed bag."


The area from Goleta and Santa Barbara to Montecito and Carpinteria is one of the least affordable regions in the state, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. As of December, only 6% of the county's households could afford to buy a median-price home there, less than in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But, as Rose knows firsthand, the issue of building more housing is "very contentious." Her mere suggestion that more affordable housing be built in the Goleta Valley sparked threats of a recall.

Slow-growth advocates are unapologetic, saying they are leading a fight of statewide importance.

"It's not just us," said Gary Earle, president of the Coalition for Sensible Planning, which threatened to recall Rose. "It's all of coastal California."

The Mediterranean climate, beautiful beaches, scenic views and open space make the coastal plateau a highly desirable place to live. But from 2000 through 2004, only one in five of the housing units built or approved in the county was located there.

In the face of strong demand and a limited supply, the median price of a single-family home shot up 35% in the last year alone, from $960,000 in December 2004 to $1.3 million at the end of 2005, according to the California Assn. of Realtors. It has since fallen slightly.

With prices so high, said Watkins, director of the economic forecast project at UC Santa Barbara, "everybody who has a home has a financial incentive to oppose growth here."

Meanwhile, 30% of south coast workers -- many shut out of the local housing market -- buy homes elsewhere and commute long distances. They drive an average of 49 miles one way from northern Santa Barbara County and an average of 41 from Ventura County, according to the Coastal Housing Partnership, an employer-backed group.

From Ventura County alone, an estimated 17,000 people now commute each weekday to the Santa Barbara area. The county's housing director, Ed Moses, who lives in Oxnard, said he leaves at 4:05 a.m. to get to Santa Barbara in 35 minutes, ahead of the traffic. "If I leave at 6," he said, "it takes an hour or hour and a half."

The backup worsens near Montecito. Residents of the wealthy enclave have fought for decades against widening the freeway, which is two lanes in each direction for 13 miles between the Ventura County line and Santa Barbara.

Caltrans District Director Gregg Albright recalls what happened in 1993 -- the last time the state proposed a widening.

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