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Where Did All This Growth Come From?

General Plan ‘Exceptions’ Undermine Goleta’s ‘Exceptionalism’


After I read Lyz Hoffman’s “Good Land for Development: A Handy Guide to What’s Being Built Where in Goleta”, I wondered how the recent construction and approvals for the cluster of 13 major Goleta developments highlighted in her article “fit” with Goleta’s General Plan. Created by the community after its incorporation, the Plan was supposed to guide carefully balanced growth in Goleta for 20 years. At this “halfway mark,” I decided to confront the Plan on how it had allowed so many large new projects to take off all at once.

But when I found the General Plan, it was lying in a corner looking like the remains of a piñata’s encounter with an industrial shredder. Undeterred I asked, “Have you seen all these major projects sprouting in Goleta? What happened to your promise to protect us against rapid growth?”

The Plan slowly opened its one good eye and croaked, “So you think it’s all my fault? You think all that growth was in my original version? Let me tell you what really happened.” And so began the Plan’s painful tale.

“When I was first approved, I had all kinds of great ideas for what Goleta should look like over the next two decades. Most new development was clustered around the Hollister corridor, and I preserved much of Goleta’s agricultural parcels and residential neighborhoods. I also embraced protections for environmentally sensitive areas and mountain views. And my Goleta Growth Management Ordinance (GGMO) ensured that infrastructure like roads would keep pace with development. I was young and bold then,” sighed the Plan wistfully.

“Yes,” I agreed. “But why did you go astray? Was it demon weed or other temptations?”

The Plan stared into the past and replied, “Four years after its incorporation, Goleta had an election fueled by developers’ donations. Three of the original City Council members were swept out of office by candidates who said that I needed just a few, minor ‘fixes’ and ‘tweaks’ so I could be more ‘flexible.’

The new council majority opened up most of my sections, amputating some parts and genetically altering others. Plus they loosened my protective joints, replacing many of my mandatory ‘musts’ and ‘shalls’ to looser ‘shoulds’ and ‘coulds.’ When they were finished, I was more flexible than a drunk contortionist on a ten-dollar trampoline.”

I replied somewhat skeptically, “But for many years, relatively little Goleta development happened. Now all of the sudden everything is popping up at once!”

Replying through layers of bloody bandages, the Plan moaned, “Well, as long as they were operating on me, they decided to ‘alter’ one other tiny part designed to pace development, the GGMO … r-r-r-r-rip, never to be heard from again.” The Plan’s bandages parted, revealing a long scar where it had been gutted. It continued, “As long as the economy was down during the recession, it didn’t seem to matter. But now that investment capital is available, everything is happening at once, exactly what the pacing ordinance could have prevented.”

“Okay, I get it,” I said. “But at least we have elected officials who can take care of you and keep you whole from now on, right?”

The Plan grimaced. “Well, I’m now built to be ‘flexible,’ especially to deal with ‘exceptions.’ For example, at any City Council meeting, a simple majority of three can modify me. All they have to do is decide that a ‘public good’ overrides one of my provisions. And they can always approve mitigations for ‘undesirable impacts.’ Or they can make an exception to the rules whenever they agree with a developer that a project is otherwise ‘infeasible.’”

“Have they ever done that?”

“Let me count the ways! Overriding the dissent of some councilmembers, a majority of them have repeatedly approved ‘exceptions.’ For example, several times the required 100-foot setbacks from sensitive areas have been reduced when a developer merely claimed the project was otherwise infeasible. And they’ve allowed buildings to exceed my height limit that was created to protect mountain views.”

“This is depressing,” I said. “I thought this recent rapid development was all your fault. But maybe it’s the fault of our elected officials, the voters who elected them, or the city staff that works for them.”

The Plan raised its remaining, singed eyebrow, and a tear dribbled from its swollen eyelid. “I’m pretty sure you all are responsible. My current state is just a reflection of the political process. I’m just the result of the best ‘care’ money can buy. The good news is that I have some ideas of how I can recover to the health I was born with. Come back in a couple of weeks, and I’ll tell you how.”

And with that, the General Plan wheezed off to a fitful slumber. I’ll be there when it wakes up to hear its words of wisdom.

Guest columnist George Relles is a 24-year resident of Goleta.

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