Housing plan update a monumental task

What do you get when you put about 100 people in a room to talk about housing? About a hundred different opinions.

County planning commissioners learned that answer when they met Aug. 27 for a briefing on the 2003-2008 Draft Housing Element, or DHE, a wide-ranging planning document required by the state as part of the General Plan.

While the initial agenda called for a briefing only, with no public testimony, commission chairman Robert Needham allowed more than 20 people to comment after a presentation by Deputy Planning Director Lisa Plowman and planners Alicia Harrison, Jeff Lindgren and Patsy Stadelman. Members of the Montecito Planning Commission also attended the briefing, which was followed by a visit to 11 proposed South Coast Housing Opportunity Sites (See sidebar).

Fewer than 5 percent of residents can afford the South Coast median home price, which rose to $900,000 in June from $779,000 in 2002, according to documents provided by the county. This fact alone makes the task of updating the DHE a huge challenge for county planners. Throw in neighborhood compatibility issues, urban agriculture, limited land inventory, uncertainty in the length of the development approval process, restrictive zoning ordinances, economic downturns, rising land and building costs, and traffic and environmental concerns, and it adds up to a county full of differing perspectives to address.

“Housing is certainly a topic on everybody’s mind,” Harrison said.

Between June and July county planners held about eight different community workshops. “At the last one in Goleta we had between 200 and 300 people attend,” Harrison said.

As part of the update, state law requires local governments to adequately plan to meet the existing and projected housing needs of all economic segments of the community, Stadelman said in her portion of the presentation.

When analyzing local population growth over the last five years, county planners found an 82 percent natural increase (births minus deaths) and 18 percent net migration. Using those figures, the South Coast is expected to grow by 39,500 residents by 2030, and the North County is expected to grow by 82,530, according to the county.

“It becomes apparent that we do need to plan for this growth,” Harrison said.

In addition to having enough housing, of primary concern is providing housing that people can afford. According to state guidelines, “overpaying for housing,” means people are paying 30 percent or more of their income for housing. Using prototypical income levels for a teacher, a firefighter and secretary, a retired couple and a computer programmer and systems analyst — all would be overpaying.

The county’s solution: “Efficient use of land basically reduces the cost of housing,” Harrison said.

But higher density development is a topic of much debate throughout the community. The Hollister Area Neighborhoods Association, or HANA, recently organized in response to the county’s housing proposals, and is circulating petitions for to the Board of Supervisors in protest of the high-density development plans.

“We are concerned about government managing land,” said Don Close, who represented HANA at the meeting.

“We must view this as an opportunity to address real housing issues,” said David Fortson, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network.

“The reality is that no one wants to see more growth. We believe there should not be another market-rate home built in Santa Barbara County. Regarding the jobs/housing balance, if we do not address our housing situation it becomes worse,” he said.

“I do not envy your job,” said Leo Havener, general manager for Vandenberg Community Services District, appropriately summing up the mood of the meeting and the challenges ahead for planners.

The next step will be to send the draft update to the state for review and comment. The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors will review the document concurrently. Comments are expected in about 60 days.

The public is invited to download copies of the DHE at www.countyofsb.org/plandev/ comp/programs/housing/ 2003/DraftHousingElement.htm

Originally appeared in South Coast Beacon on September 4, 2003.

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