The effort to split Santa Barbara County in two is back on the lips of residents on both sides of the issue.

The Citizens for County Organization filed a notice of intention with the county clerk-recorder yesterday to circulate petitions and gather the necessary signatures to put the split on the ballot. The CCO needs signatures from 25 percent of North County registered voters – approximately 20,000 people – to begin a feasibility study for the proposed new county.

A similar petition drive last year failed to collect the necessary signatures, but Jim Diani, CCO chairman and owner of Diani Construction, said he does not anticipate any problems collecting the signatures this time around.

“Most petition drives that have something constructive to put on the ballot are fairly successful,” Diani said. “I don’t anticipate any problems.”

If the signatures are gathered, Gov. Gray Davis will appoint a committee to study the issue and report on the consequences of the formation of a new county. The issue will then be put on the ballot.

Joyce Howerton, spokeswoman for Responsible Taxpayers Against the County Split, says she hopes people signing the petition realize doing so could come at some expense to the county.

“No matter what the feasibility study says, the split will go on the ballot … If it passes – and I don’t think it will, so it’s really not an issue – the new county must repay the commission cost. But they won’t be able to do that because they will be so bankrupt.”

Diani said the county split effort is not directly related to the effort to recall 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall, which failed in the November election.

“The recall was just a short-term solution to a long-term problem,” he said. “The recall would have only resulted in a shift in the balance of power, which is just not productive within our county government.”

Historically there has been a strong political, economic and social division between the North and South counties. This is not even the first time a county split has been attempted; in 1978, a similar proposal was defeated at the polls. Diani told the Daily Nexus in November of 2002 the sentiments driving CCO’s effort are neither new nor rooted with the recall effort. He linked the 1978 county split effort to issues that trace back to the 19th century.

“It’s specifics that rattle everybody’s cages, but it goes much deeper than that. The [agricultrual] issue is very instrumental, but understand that the group I run around with, it’s all positive,” he said. “Historically what [happened] is, at times, the South would allow the North to do what they wanted to do, particularly in relation to the supervisors. … In the late ’90s, the element changed on the board, and the people in the North got tired and frustrated of getting things shoved down their throats.”

But Marshall’s executive staff assistant Mark Chaconas said other issues are fueling the renewed effort.

“The real issue is over growth control,” Chaconas said. “This is all about who controls the vote on the testing of growth and development.”

Chaconas said he questions the feasibility of the proposed Mission County, which would stretch between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the San Luis Obispo County line.

“It’s always terribly divisive when a community divorces,” he said. “That’s essentially what is happening. The North County is claiming irreconcilable differences.”

Despite Diani’s confidence, Chaconas said the petition could possibly fall short again.

“They need to collect so many signatures, they will not be able to utilize the grassroots support,” he said. “They’ll need professional signature gatherers, which could alienate some of their supporters.”

Beginning March 15, petitioners will have 180 days to gather the signatures. The public hearing for the notice of intention will be held on Feb. 27.

– Staff writer Marisa Lagos contributed to this report