Isla Vista business owners, afraid of losing their property as the county moves forward with plans to redevelop I.V. – which could turn most of oceanside Del Playa Drive into a park and overhaul downtown – have filed a lawsuit against Santa Barbara County.
In early October, they filed the suit to try to halt the formation of the Project Area Committee (PAC), a group of 13 community members which will make recommendations to the County Board of Supervisors concerning the future of I.V.
Property owners say they are not fairly represented on the committee and fear the PAC – along with Envision Design, the architectural firm contracted to help draw up the new plans – may suggest changes that will hurt I.V. businesses. The business owners’ greatest concern is the possible use of eminent domain, which would allow the county to buy property without the consent of the property owner.
Business owners have also filed a complaint about the validity of the PAC election, which took place on Oct. 30. The Board of Supervisors was scheduled to certify the election results at Tuesday’s meeting but postponed doing so until next week, when it will hear both the complaints and the results.
How the PAC Came to Be
In 1990, the county established a project area that included all of I.V. and the Storke Ranch development behind Francisco Torres, and formed a redevelopment agency and PAC to determine how to improve the area.
Under state law, a redevelopment project can be formed to improve an area that is at least 80 percent urban and meets several conditions that make it, according to the law, economically and physically “blighted.” Redevelopment is the means through which the county, along with the PAC and a private design firm, can plan to improve the area.
Jamie Goldstein, the county’s I.V. redevelopment project manager, said the goal of the original plan was to acquire environmentally sensitive land, increase public open space, enhance housing rehabilitation and develop public infrastructure improvement.
The project stalled and ran low on money, and the original PAC disbanded.
In 1999, the county extended the timeline for redevelopment but did not extend its power of eminent domain in the project area. That power could be acquired in the future through approval from the project committee and the Board of Supervisors.
In February 2001, the agency chose Berkeley-based Envision Design to be the redevelopment project architect.
On Oct. 30, the redevelopment agency held an election to choose four of the 13 PAC representatives. Lucero Marquez was chosen as a residential tenant, Janet Stich was elected as residential owner, and Lou Ventura and Craig Geyer were elected as business owners.
Both Ventura, who owns Ventura Enterprises, which owns and manages property in I.V., and Geyer , who owns Central Service and Supply on Pardall Road, are part of the lawsuit against the PAC. Geyer also recently filed the separate complaint claiming the PAC election was invalid and should be nullified.
In addition to the elected citizens, the PAC is comprised of representatives from nine organizations: the I.V. Association, the I.V. Property Owner’s Association, the I.V. Youth Projects, the I.V. Tenants Union, the Storke Ranch Association, UCSB Associated Students, UCSB Graduate Students Association, Santa Barbara Housing Cooperative and the I.V. Teen Center. The names of these representatives have not yet been released.
Ventura said he and most other business owners in I.V. have several problems with the redevelopment plan. He said the PAC is stacked against property and business owners, which could lead to a recommendation to condemn private land.
Under state redevelopment law, if there is a PAC recommendation, a plan must be approved by a 3-2 vote from the Board of Supervisors. Without the PAC, the vote must be 4-1.
“Why are we scared of the PAC? The PAC is stacked with organizations that may not be sensitive to the business people and landowners. What’s our fear? The PAC makes a recommendation over eminent domain,” Ventura said. “If redevelopment was happening and there was never a fear of eminent domain, I’m sure the most of the business owners would be behind it 100 percent.”
Eminent domain is a power used by government agencies to acquire land for open spaces or public projects such as sidewalks. However, eminent domain can also be used to acquire land for commercial projects in the case of redevelopment.
Goldstein said the power of eminent domain is rarely used, and the goal of the PAC is to ensure community input.
“The goal is to work with local businesses and the community and come up with a plan that addresses their concerns,” he said. “If you have successful businesses, like Sam’s to Go, you don’t want to see them fail.”
The lawsuit argues that the county does not have the authority to form a new PAC because the first committee disbanded years ago and the project area has been in place for 11 years. California law states that the formation of a PAC must take place within 100 days of the selection of the project area.
“The county formed a PAC in 1990. The PAC served its purpose, made their recommendation, and there wasn’t enough redevelopment money,” Ventura said. “They were required to file certain extensions – a PAC has a life span and that life span was over.”
Goldstein declined to comment on the logistics of the lawsuit, but said that “according to our attorney we still can have a PAC.”
Ventura said Geyer contested the election because the definition of “business owner” was vague, allowing a property owner whose business is based outside of the project area to vote, but restricting owners in the community who own more than one business to one vote.
Goldstein said the definition of business owners included those who own property in I.V. but whose business is not based there, because their business will be affected by changes in the project area.
“So, yes, people who don’t live in the area can vote,” he said. “On the day of [the election], someone came in and insisted that they should be able to vote two times because they owned two businesses – it didn’t seem fair, because if you own 300 apartment units, each one could be considered a separate business. I understand how it sounds, but it was our call.”
In addition, Ventura said the county changed requirements the day of the election – originally, each business was allotted one vote from a representative or owner. On election day, only owners were allowed to vote.
The county said the requirements were changed, but not maliciously – Goldstein said he was informed on Oct. 30 by county counsel that legally, only the owner could cast a vote.
“I essentially wanted to give the businesses the ability to vote more easily,” he said. “We did accept provisional ballots when we weren’t clear if they were an owner or representative, and two of three of those were accepted … None of this would have affected the outcome of the election, though.”
In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, lawyers for the property owners also objected to any proposal to extend the agency’s eminent domain authority.
The letter said the original plan extended eminent domain for 10 years, starting in November 1990, and that the agency declined to amend that plan last year. The letter concludes that the county’s eminent domain in the project area therefore expired in November of 2000.
The Future of Redevelopment
Ventura also expressed concern about the long-term goals of redevelopment, including the proposed acquisition of all bluff-top property on the 6500-6700 blocks of Del Playa to form a park.
“It has been stated that they want to methodically purchase bluff-top properties on D.P. with the use of eminent domain. This is part of what I.V. is – students coming, living on the beach, looking at waves, watching the sunset. The students should be in an uproar,” Ventura said.
The future of the bluffs is one of the things the PAC committee will address, Goldstein said.
“The bluff, in the long term, doesn’t work – the problem isn’t going away, but it isn’t something that needs attention tomorrow. It does need consideration in the long term,” he said. “We have to figure out a solution – A, to keep people from dying, and B , so in 50 years, we won’t have disasters when the houses fall off. I don’t think the optimal solution is to have them fall into the ocean. We’ll talk about it at the PAC meeting and come up with a solution.”
Ventura said the plan will probably increase the cost of living in I.V., from proposed parking fees to simple inflation after remodeling or rebuilding.
“What we’re scared of is that they’re not letting the students know what’s going on. When you tear down and build new buildings, instead of charging $1.75 per square foot it will be $3 per square foot, so business owners will charge more for goods and services – it’s inflation,” he said.
A Blighted Community?
Ventura said the lawsuit also objects to the grounds on which the redevelopment agency was formed. The letter to the board cited a recent case in Mammoth, CA, which “makes clear that a finding of blight requires serious physical and economic devastation” – criteria that they argue does not characterize I.V.
“Look up the definition of blighted. We’re more blighted by what the county hasn’t done than anything else,” Ventura said. “We believe the county neglected and over-regulated I.V. – they tied the hands of property owners with building and parking restrictions. They created what I.V. has become through regulation and through lack of representation.”
Blight is defined in the California Health and Safety Code by a number of things, including unsafe buildings, substandard building design, lack of parking, high business vacancies, low lease rates, residential crowding, a high number of liquor stores and a high crime rate.
Goldstein said that while the original finding was made in 1990, the community still fits the legal definition.
“It’s a continuum – you don’t have to say every street is blighted, but I’m sure I could make blighted findings again today. Look at the definition – there is an oversupply of liquor stores, there are numerous zoning violations, there are substandard housing conditions,” he said. “When you draw a line around a project area, it may not only include stuff that needs help – there are different parts of the project area that are fine.”
Third District Supervisor Gail Marshall’s assistant Mark Chaconas said certain regulations – like a county requirement that property owners have two parking spaces per bedroom – are in place because of the density of I.V. However, he said part of redevelopment could include changing certain restrictions.
“Lou doesn’t understand that there’s a parking problem in I.V., and you can’t build more bedrooms without providing parking for the residents,” he said. “But, part of the master plan process is potentially changing regulations.
Where To Go From Here
Goldstein said the county plans to continue working on redevelopment despite the lawsuit.
“Plans for redevelopment are still continuing as they were before,” he said. “The lawsuit has not impacted the plan yet, but clearly the potential for change is there. Depending on what the court rules, the project could be affected in any number of ways.”
Ventura said the business owners will remain vigilant, and he encouraged students to do the same.
“I.V. is a rich place with a lifestyle that’s fun. It can be a nicer place without redevelopment – it’s nice that that money is coming back here, but when it comes back and kills business, it’s not ok,” he said. “I said to Envision and the county, if you are sensitive to the business members, if you allow people to keep and maintain their properties – if you deregulate property so they can do something – you will do more for the community than you would coming in and making it Westwood.”