Unnatural Disasters

The slow-growth initiative you voted for may come back to haunt you.


For a long time, Nancy Prichard wouldn't go back to the seven-acre site where her family's home once stood. She cried when she did, says her husband, David—"Everything was so black." The Prichards' two-story, 2,500-square-foot house sat in the chaparral-covered foothills of California's Santa Ynez Mountains, overlooking the city of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean. On June 27, 1990, it was one of the first residences destroyed by the Painted Cave Fire, a massive blaze that began nearby as a brush fire and ultimately razed some 470 structures, killed one woman, injured close to 100 people, and caused $300 million in property damage. In recent California history, only the calamitous October 1991 fire in the Oakland hills wreaked more harm.

Natural disasters cause equal-opportunity devastation, but the Prichards' situation was especially tragic. Prichard had built the house himself, with money saved from 17 years working on oil rigs and a few more laying sewer lines. With little extra cash, he did outside jobs for his architect and electrician in exchange for their work. Though Prichard found Santa Barbara County's planning process "frustrating as hell"—obtaining permits took over six months, his plans (submitted in triplicate) were lost by the county, and he had to pay hefty "impact fees"—the project turned out beautifully. When the family finally moved into the three-bedroom house in December 1989, he says, they were "in heaven." But they lived in their new home for only seven months.

The day of the fire, hot, high-speed "sundowner" winds characteristic of the coastal area spread the blaze quickly through tinder-like vegetation withered by four years of drought. Prichard tried to use the backhoe he operates for a living to erect a dirt barrier to protect his house. When that didn't work, he put a sprinkler on his roof, hoping to cool it down. But the wind blew the water away. Prichard loaded his dog and cat into his truck and left. Soon afterward, the fire ignited his truck, melting its lights, mirrors, and license plates; Prichard owes his life to a fireproof blanket handed him by a group of firefighters he passed on the road.

The next day, Prichard returned to find no home. "There was nothing left standing except the fireplace," he says. "The hills were as slick as a billiard ball—the fire had baked the ground. There was not a bird, there was not a sound." Like hundreds of other fire victims, Prichard's family lost everything, from furniture and clothes to birth certificates and tax records.

In the days after the fire, Prichard was touched by the outpouring of support he received from members of the local community. People he hadn't heard from in years called to ask if he needed anything. The Red Cross gave his family clothing vouchers, and he received money from his church. (Prichard also got assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.) The fire had destroyed his backhoe; a group called the Council of Christmas Cheer lent him tools so he could go back to work.

But the local government's response to the disaster was a different story. Newcomers and developers have long complained about Santa Barbara's labyrinthine planning process. When there is trouble in paradise, however, as Prichard discovered—and as victims of October's Bay Area fire may soon find—even longtime residents who previously had little reason to interact with the planning bureaucracy are funneled en masse into the maze.

In a state that has long been a bellwether of trends across the nation, Santa Barbara is a textbook example of what has happened in communities determined to protect their natural beauty and ambience from outsiders—and even insiders. A substantial and vocal faction of citizens fiercely opposes new development and calls for meticulous controls of any changes to existing dwellings. An unwieldy, politicized planning bureaucracy has grown up to implement the exclusionary rules. And while the theory is certainly understandable to anyone who has visited California's gorgeous coast, the practice has too often meant land-use regulations that are arbitrary, unreasonable, and intrusive.

Such controls have become increasingly widespread around the country in recent years, as the growth-control movement—the byproduct, ironically, of economic prosperity—has gained momentum. "There's a tendency of 'I've got mine and let's close the doors,'" says James W. Hughes, professor of urban planning at Rutgers University. The local planning process, he says, "has gotten extremely, extremely complex, and it's made the process of building more difficult and much more expensive."

Examples abound of the lengths to which communities will go to regulate growth, whether in the name of preserving the environment, reducing congestion, keeping property values up, or keeping infrastructure costs down. A New. Jersey official cited recently by a federal commission on affordable housing complained that a new subdivision in Mercer County must go through nine separate agencies and 11 different reviews—of which seven involve storm drainage—before gaining approval.

Some communities have put caps on the number of new building permits that can be issued each year, while others use exclusionary zoning to the same effect. In many Chicago suburbs, for example, manufactured housing is prohibited, and homes must be built on lots of no less than five acres. Nationwide, construction projects are frequently prevented or delayed on environmental grounds, held hostage to such endangered species as the Stevens kangaroo rat and the tiger salamander.

In the past decade, state planning laws have been enacted in nine states, including Vermont, Florida, Washington, Maine, and Georgia. Most regulation, however, occurs at the local level. Anthony Downs, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that local regulations may account for upwards of 50 percent of the cost of new housing.

This antigrowth climate spelled trouble for David Prichard, even though he sought only to rebuild exactly what he had before the Painted Cave Fire. Prichard submitted the original set of designs for the house—complete with the original approval stamps—to the Santa Barbara County Resource Management Department. The RMD is the county's main planning agency, one of nine different departments that review building applications.

To his surprise, Prichard discovered that he had fallen afoul of something called the Hillside and Ridgeline Ordinance. Passed after his original plans had been approved, the ordinance places a 16-foot height limit on houses on rural sites where there is a slope of 16 percent or more. Prichard's home was 21 feet tall at its highest point. Like other homes built before the new regulations took effect, it had been grandfathered in by the county as a "legal nonconforming" structure.

After the Painted Cave Fire, however, the county wanted to bring such residences into compliance with the latest regulations. Section 35-307.2.a of the County Code's Article III states that "if a non-conforming structure is damaged by fire…to an extent greater than 75% of the replacement cost it may not be restored unless the Planning Commission finds that the adverse impact upon the neighborhood would be less than the hardship which would be suffered by the owner of the structure should the restoration of the non-conforming structure be denied."

In other words, disaster or no, the burden of proof would be on fire victims to show that restoring the status quo would not unduly hurt the community and that a mandatory redesign would hurt those rebuilding their homes.

The RMD first sent Prichard to the Board of Architectural Review, which rejected his request to be exempted from the new height restriction. Prichard then appealed to the County Planning Commission, a five-member body with one appointed representative from each county supervisor's district. At the August 1, 1990, meeting of the commission, Mary Bean, a young RMD planner, recommended that Prichard's appeal be denied. She noted in her staff report that Prichard's architect said a redesign would take two or three months to gain approval and cost from $20,000 to $25,000. Still, she observed, the house would have "a visual impact" on people driving up Highway 154—designated a scenic highway—if it was not lowered.

Prichard explained that he was short of money; his home, though valued at $400,000, was underinsured at only $150,000. "If you make me change my house, I can't build it," he told the commissioners. "How much more of a hardship can you have?" But there was little talk at the hearing of Prichard's problems. When he explained that he had no nearby neighbors whose view might be blocked by his house, Commissioner Nancy Johnson commented, "[it's] certainly in view of everybody who drives up 154…it came as a shock to a lot of people when that house went up."

Despite much hand wringing over the "conundrum" Prichard's case presented, the commissioners apparently saw the fire as an occasion to improve on the status quo ante rather than just restore it. They rejected Prichard's exemption request and suggested that he appeal to the Board of Supervisors.

Prichard never ended up meeting with the board. Though his home had never had much shrubbery before, he arrived at a compromise with the BAR that allowed him to rebuild his house on the condition that he plant a variety of trees and shrubs around it. He had to post an $8,000 bond with the county to ensure that he did the work, and he received an extraordinarily detailed set of plans specifying not only the number and type of plants he should put in but also their exact location on his property.

Sitting inside the half-completed house he is once again building himself, Prichard is resigned but still angry. "I'm a Missouri farm boy," he says, looking the part in a John Deere baseball cap, white T-shirt, frayed jeans, and cowboy boots. "Nobody told me what to do with my land. What right does some bastard have to tell me what kind of trees to plant on my property?"

He has no objection to basic zoning rules but says, "This whole no-growth thing gives a few people a hell of a lot of power." He's still not sure he'll have enough money to buy furniture and wonders whether his family will be able to enjoy the house again after the fire and all the unexpected problems it brought.

"The first time you build a home it's exciting," explains Prichard. "The second time you just want to get the damned thing done so you can live in it."

The double whammy of bureaucratic red tape following fast on a devastating natural disaster is not unique to Prichard, or to Santa Barbara. Hundreds of miles to the north, in Santa Cruz County, Bob Montague sits in Café Sparrow, the small restaurant he runs in Aptos, and tells another story of post-disaster frustration. Originally from North Carolina, Montague first came to Santa Cruz (which he calls "one of the most beautiful places on earth") in 1977. After working in local restaurants, he eventually purchased Café Sparrow with his wife Julie in June 1989.

One Tuesday evening a few months later, Montague was talking on the phone in the kitchen as the restaurant prepared to serve dinner. At 5:04 p.m. the wooden floor began to move. "I've always taken earthquakes sort of as a joke," says Montague. "I was like, 'Whoooah! Earthquake!'" But he soon realized that this one was serious. He and Julie made it to the front doorway ("It was like trying to run across a ship in rough seas") and saw the facade with the restaurant's sign on it fall into the street. Glass flew, the restaurant's refrigerator emptied onto the floor, and the fryer flipped off the counter, pouring 350-degree oil onto the kitchen floor.

Montague ventured back into the restaurant just in time to experience the first, and strongest, of several aftershocks that continued that night and for weeks afterward.

The October 17 earthquake was the worst to hit Santa Cruz County in more than 80 years. The initial tremor measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, lasted 15 seconds, and devastated the county. Six people were killed, over 300 were injured, and some 3,000 in the area were left homeless. The quake decimated downtown Santa Cruz and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes around the county. The total estimated property damage: $1 billion.

Though Montague, like many who went through the quake, was amazed by what didn't get broken amidst the mayhem—his restaurant's 6-foot-by-10-foot front window survived, as did the plates he still uses today—the Café Sparrow suffered considerable damage. Between $6,000 and $7,000 of wine was lost, along with $3,000 worth of food. Most seriously, the turn-of-the-century building suffered structural damage; the building leaned, and a four-inch crack appeared in the concrete foundation supporting the structure.

With nine people staying at his house that week, Montague had his hands full, but he took a get-down-to-business approach to the damage his café sustained. Says Montague, "We figured, 'OK, so there's got to be some repairs. We'll get some permits and get this thing going.' And then we started getting into the permit process—that's when it really started getting ugly."

Montague's biggest problem? Delays. "The main policy is stall and thwart," he complains. "Instead of telling people, 'No, you can't build,' they just keep them in planning hell forever."

At first it was hard for Montague and his landlord even to find out what steps they needed to take to get rebuilding permission from the county. "Admittedly, there was a lot of shock after the earthquake," says Montague, "but we're talking two months before we had a general meeting where we had some information."

At an early-December meeting in the County Building, county planning staff explained that, based on the recommendations of a soil geologist and a structural engineer, they would require a new set of foundation plans drawn by an architect. "We were told point-blank by Diane Guzman [the county planning director] that once our plans were submitted we would get turnaround within five days," says Montague.

But when the new plans were submitted in mid-January, in compliance with all the county's requests, no quick approval was forthcoming. Nor did the planning department tell the owner and his architect precisely what should be done to make the plans acceptable. For four more months, the plans would be submitted and returned, each time with a new list of questions from the planning department. "It was endless, endless," says Montague.

Meanwhile, his restaurant was still closed, putting Montague, his wife, and 15 employees out of work. Montague was able to get low-interest disaster loans from FEMA and the Small Business Administration, but he still had to pay the note on the recently purchased restaurant. To bring in some money, he got a job waiting tables at the restaurant where he used to work.

After months of frustration, Montague called the office of County Supervisor Robley Levy. When he threatened to go to the press, he got quick action. The next day, Montague says, "everybody in the Planning Department who had anything to do with the project was here. There were six people, all in the same department, who'd never talked to each other." The plans were finally approved in mid-May—eight months after the earthquake. Montague estimates that he was closed unnecessarily for five of those months. The Café Sparrow would have taken in about $200,000 in revenue during that time.

In both Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara, county officials don't take kindly to the view that they were a thorn in the side of disaster victims trying to rebuild. Santa Cruz Planning Director Guzman suggests that the "three or four hundred people who are unhappy" represent a small portion of those who have received some 16,000-plus repair permits to date, though she acknowledges that "those that are unhappy are very unhappy." David Lee, an assistant planning director, says that after the earthquake, "We tried to make things as simple and hassle-free as possible," grandfathering in many nonconforming structures and obtaining FEMA funding for building fees that would normally have been paid by homeowners.

In Santa Barbara, Philip Overeynder, assistant director of the RMD, says undue attention has been focused on stories like Prichard's and that most Painted Cave Fire victims felt they got "a fair shake" from his department. "There were some difficult cases," says Overeynder in his downtown office, "but those were the exception rather than the rule."

It's true that by no means everyone who went through the Loma Prieta earthquake and the Painted Cave Fire complains about the planning process. Beverly Mester, who lost her Santa Barbara home, benefited from the official "fast-track" permitting process established for fire victims with the simplest rebuilding plans. Says Mester, "People who were rebuilding the same house in the same footprint without increasing more than 20 percent really didn't have that much problem with the county."

Other homeowners praised the speed with which the county issued permits for demolition, trailers, and temporary power at a special one-stop emergency center established right after the fire. And Planning Commission Chairman Ed Maschke boasted that even in areas with many nonconforming residences, current zoning rules were stretched to allow homeowners to rebuild without having now-mandatory off-street parking or having to meet current setback and lot-size requirements.

But these instances of flexibility and responsiveness are only what one would expect from a compassionate local government after a disaster. Instead, what too many people got was red tape and more red tape. In February 1991 the Santa Barbara News-Press conducted a survey of fire victims to find out how they had fared since the previous June. Of the 550 questionnaires sent out, 253 were returned.

Along with numerous complaints about insurance companies and mortgage holders, fully 44 percent of fire victims who had dealt with the county were dissatisfied with the treatment they received when they began trying to rebuild. Wrote one respondent: "The fire was bad and very hard for my family to deal with, as we only were left with the shirts on our backs. But, by far, it was harder and more disturbing when we tried to get a permit to rebuild what we had. Even now, to think about the Board of Architectural Review and [Planning] Commission makes my blood boil." Another survey participant was even blunter: "There are not enough four-letter words in the English language to describe the County of Santa Barbara."

Many fire victims were especially frustrated by the cost of permits, which averaged $2,017 when fees for building, grading, architectural review, and the like were added up. In addition to a $ 1,968 building permit, Harold Purdy, a retired county employee, was charged a $211 fire-protection fee by the fire department, although he points out that his home received no protection on the day of the fire. Purdy also objects to paying a $240 architectural-review fee for a hearing that took only 15 minutes and a $ 105 land-use fee for a property he had lived on for 25 years.

For those unprepared for combat, learning about the power wielded by planning bureaucrats was a shock. "I hope I never have another dealing with them." says Dr. Mounir Ashamalla, a Cairo-born oral surgeon who has been practicing in Santa Barbara since 1969. His 4,500-square-foot home was burned to the ground by the Painted Cave Fire.

In order to allow a demolition truck through his long driveway, Ashamalla says, he had it widened and cleared of some 15 coastal oaks that were badly burned in the fire. The RMD said he had illegally removed trees that might have lived and refused to give him a land-use permit for a retaining wall next to the driveway unless he agreed to replace the 15 oaks at a 10-to-1 ratio. Just in case Ashamalla had no room for the 150 trees he was told to plant, the RMD had a further stipulation: "The applicant shall donate any replacement trees which cannot be accommodated on-site to the Parks Department prior to issuance of a Land Use Permit."

Ashamalla appealed to the Planning Commission and ultimately agreed to plant 20 new trees and to post a $1,000 bond to guarantee their maintenance. On top of the hassles he went through, and in addition to his original permit fee, Ashamalla received a bill for $1,369.40 (later reduced to $609.40 when he complained) to cover the time spent on his case, in keeping with the RMD's policy of full cost recovery. Says Ashamalla, "They make you pay for the bullets they shoot you with."

In Santa Cruz, the most savvy earthquake victims moved quickly after the disaster. John Livingstone, the energetic owner of Logos Books on the Pacific Garden Mall, is now constructing a much larger, 27,000-square-foot building to replace the two-story structure hit by the quake. "As soon as it fell down, my thought was to get started on rebuilding as soon as possible," he says. "If you sit around and wait, you're screwed. It takes so long for anybody to make any kind of decision, it would take forever to get anything done."

Indeed, since Livingstone got his approval—one of the first granted—the city has both lowered the maximum acceptable building height downtown and required that businesses have high interior ceilings on their main floor. And before getting around to setting those new policies, the 36-member committee formed to plan the future look of downtown Santa Cruz (which still resembles a war zone two years after the quake) spent its first few meetings arguing over what its name should be. ("Vision Santa Cruz" won out.)

Livingstone is reluctant to blame the downtown's disarray on the city Planning Department (under whose jurisdiction his business falls), citing the problems many store owners have had getting tenants and financing in a period of tight credit. But the gratitude he expresses for the rush treatment his plans were given bears traces of the Stockholm Syndrome—his permit took two months, whereas "normally it's at least six to eight months."

Probably the angriest group of earthquake victims in Santa Cruz are the residents of the Summit area in the mountains, particularly those who live in an expensive, heavily damaged subdivision known as Villa Del Monte. Members of the Villa Del Monte Emergency Homeowners Association (VEHA) sued the county government over a requirement that homeowners in "areas of critical concern" sign a waiver before receiving permission to make repairs. The waiver, which was not lifted until October 1991, held the county harmless from future liability should the area again become geologically active. "That's no problem," says homeowner Diane Huffman. But, she says, the document also gave residents no recourse against the county should it condemn their property in the future.

The issue of geologic safety is particularly contentious because homeowners believe that consultants hired by the county came to a hasty and unwarranted conclusion that the quake reactivated ancient landslides that could threaten homes again. VEHA contends that the quake simply caused surface cracking, typical earthquake damage with far less dire implications for future safety than landslides.

An ongoing $1.35-million study of the area funded by FEMA and supervised by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to reach any final conclusions, but VEHA members complain that the county took the landslide theory as a given and ignored evidence that contradicts it—such as deep wells that suffered no damage in the quake, and the fact that no land has shifted since the quake despite heavy rainfalls last spring.

"Repairing our house was nothing compared to the hassles we got from government," says Huffman. She and her companion, Dennis Hollars, complain bitterly about the innumerable delays the Planning Department has put them through; they had to revise the required geological report three times over four months (at a cost of $13,000 in geologists' fees) before it was accepted. Says Huffman, "Every time you call them you get jerked around so much. You have the guidelines, you give them what they want, and they keep finding new things."

Beyond sheer ineptitude, many residents believe the troubles they've had are politically, not scientifically, motivated. Says VEHA president Hank Meyer, "They use this as a means of growth control. You've got a political problem in which geology is being used to control land use." County Supervisor Jan Beautz, who represents the Summit area, agrees. "I don't think you use a disaster to update your land-use policies.…How much of a geologic report do you need to rebuild a garage?"

Adds Beautz; "Geology's not an exact science. We live in California. To try to figure out everything that's going to happen…I just don't think you can do it. In the meantime, all these people's lives are shattered."

Ultimately, of course, the frustrations of earthquake survivors only reflect a wider problem with the Santa Cruz Planning Department. In a special survey conducted by Santa Cruz County Supervisor Fred Keeley and released in June 1991, a substantial number of respondents had harsh criticisms of the building-permit process. In this community of no-holds-barred growth control and environmentalism, 51 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced "substantial delays" in processing their permit applications, with 20.5 percent of that group reporting 5 to 10 delays, and 27.9 percent citing more than 10 delays. Wrote one respondent, "There is a basic antagonistic attitude that exists—them against us."

Similarly, the travails of fire survivors in Santa Barbara have been linked to basic problems with the planning process. In May 1991, the 19 members of the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury released an evaluation of the RMD, triggered by the complaints of fire victims. It criticized a Rube Goldbergesque four-page "Permit Process Overview" that was distributed to fire survivors by the county. The complexity of the permit overview, said the report, points to the real underlying issue: "how difficult the process is for securing the proper permits to build a house in Santa Barbara County," disaster or no disaster.

The RMD says it has taken such criticisms to heart. "We're going to make changes in the way we do business," says Assistant Director Overeynder. "There's a recognition that the process sometimes overwhelms the substance of the process, and we'd like to change that."

These are admirable sentiments, but the battle for reform may be an uphill one—in part because of local residents themselves. Overeynder says the community's level of concern about development and environmental protection remains "unprecedented" and that attempts to relax planning codes, even for fairly minor changes to a home, meet with strong public resistance.

Along with these grass-roots political pressures, bureaucrats themselves—who are not without opinions—inevitably have a strong practical influence on the direction regulations take. And if leadership comes from the top, Santa Barbara residents have a lot to worry about. RMD Director John Patton told the Santa Barbara News-Press he is not surprised so many applicants are unhappy with his 120-member department. Explained Patton, "People feel landuse rules are insensitive, but they weren't designed to relate to people, only to land."

Land before people? Patton's comments go to the heart of the planning debate and help explain the problems so many homeowners had after the Loma Prieta quake and the Painted Cave Fire. When community rights are invoked against property owners, when helping people is subordinated to the mission of protecting the land, no wonder the response of local governments compares so unfavorably to the actions of community members themselves.

In the end, the real scandal in these California utopias is not what happened after two natural disasters but what happens every day. As fire victim Inge Uphoff says, "As soon as the fire was over there was all this talk of 'help the fire victims.' But after a few months the novelty wore off and it was business as usual."

Ben Wildavsky is executive editor of The Public Interest.