The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted at its meeting yesterday to pass the Housing Element Update – a plan that would increase low-income housing in the area – to Santa Barbara County Planning and Development for review.

The plan, which is part of the county’s 5-year long-range development plan required by the State of California, must contain provisions for at least 17,000 additional low-income housing sites in the county. The newly approved plan will now go to the county’s Planning and Development office and receive a new Environmental Impact Report before it is officially adopted, 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said. He said the HEU could be finalized sometime next year.

The current HEU was adopted in March 2004 and will be updated by the newly approved draft in 2009. Firestone said other counties have already approved their plans for renewal, but delays in the process have prevented Santa Barbara County from doing so.

“We are actually way behind in our process,” Firestone said. “Every other county is ahead of us.”

If the county moves too slowly, Firestone said, the state could take over the planning process or withdraw funding for the county’s HEU. Housing advocates could also sue the county if the new HUE is not certified by the California Dept. of Housing and Community Development by the July 2009 deadline.

Mary O’Gorman, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, said she thinks a newly approved HEU is long overdue and is glad the implementation process can now finally move forward.

“With any document, there’s always going to be parts that we would have done differently or someone else would have done differently, but overall it’s the right thing to do,” O’Gorman said.

Gary Earle, president of the Coalition for Sensible Planning, said the CSP does not agree with some parts of the plan, but still supports the overall document.

“We weren’t opposing it in its current form, we were asking for certain revisions,” Earle said.

Earle said the CSP’s initial issues with the plan included the board’s reliance on an outdated EIR from 2004 to determine where housing sites should go. The HEU passed yesterday includes significant changes to the plan, including provisions for a new EIR.

Earle also said he thinks there has not been sufficient opportunity for the public to comment on the plan. He said he thinks the CSP’s opposition to the plan, which was detailed in a 25-page report on its problems with the HEU, is a view shared by many other local citizens.

“We commented on behalf of the citizens,” Earle said. “We looked at what the county came up with [and] identified the deficiencies.”

Firestone said he thinks the CSP’s claims are unfounded. He said a new EIR is not required by law because the housing sites have not been chosen and said there have been numerous opportunities for public comment. Firestone said he thinks opponents of the HEU, including the CSP, are worried about other issues entirely.

“There’s controversy because many people don’t want to see affordable housing built in their neighborhoods,” Firestone said. “They’ve banded together and threatened us with a lawsuit, but we don’t think there’s a basis to it.”

O’Gorman said SBCAN believes it is important for the county to support low-income housing, especially in light of the area’s growing homeless population.

“We believe it’s the responsibility of the whole county, and that no neighborhood or community is exempt from some degree of responsibility for housing,” O’Gorman said. “Being raised in this environment, there’s always that sense of hope that it never changes. But it is changing and the state is changing. We’re not an island; we can’t isolate ourselves.”