A proposal from residents of northern Santa Barbara County to divide the county in two is making progress. An election on the creation of Mission County could occur as early as fall of 2004, although voting in 2006 appears more likely.
Different approaches to land use — the north is seen as much more amenable to development than the south — lie at or very near the heart of the movement. But development is by no means the only issue. The two areas are different in many ways. The south county in and around Santa Barbara is seen as cosmopolitan, touristy, artsy and politically liberal. The north county, which includes the cities of Santa Maria and Lompoc, the unincorporated community of Orcutt and Vandenburg Air Force, is agrarian, working-class and politically conservative. Essentially, Santa Barbara is the northernmost extension of L.A., while Santa Maria is the southern end of a long rural stretch that extends north through San Luis Obispo County and into the Salinas Valley.
For decades, residents of northern Santa Barbara County have chafed at being on the short end of a Board of Supervisors that is geographically and politically split 3-2. As Santa Barbara News-Press
reporter Michael Todd wrote last year, residents of the north "say they cannot till their fields, trim their trees or mine rocks off the hillsides because of Santa Barbara County's objections. Their votes are diluted by transient college kids, while do-gooders and bureaucrats want to set the wages they pay, their automobiles suffer on crumbling roads while environmentalists bay for bikes and buses, and at the end of the day they cannot even be proud of the local Boy Scouts anymore."
While political differences run hot, organizers of the pro-secession Citizens for County Organization (CFCO) are trying to remain as cool as possible.
"Our group has really tried to stay away from the passionate, partisan issues here," said Jim Diani, CFCO chairman and a Santa Maria-based developer. "We just say we're different, and it's OK for us to be different."
The more disinterested approach is something that secession backers learned from a failed 1978 attempt to split Santa Barbara County. "It was strictly an emotional thing then," said Harrell Fletcher, the leader of the 1978 movement and at the time a county supervisor from Santa Maria. "It wasn't given the thought that we have given it now."
Santa Barbara County leaders are not actively campaigning against the secession — at least not yet.
"We're waiting to see if the proponents get the signatures," County Administrator Michael Brown said. Brown contended that there are ways other than divorce to resolve the differences. He tried, but failed, to convince secession proponents of the value of an independent study outside of the formal secession process.
A big concern of Brown and secession skeptics is that once secession qualifies for the ballot, there is no turning back. By law, the question must go to the voters, whether or not a commission appointed by the governor can figure out finance, service and governance issues raised by the split. There is no role for the Local Agency Formation Commission, which would normally address government organization.
The state Legislature in 1974 eased the laws concerning county formation. The process is this: Proponents have six months to gather signatures from 25% of registered voters in the proposed new county. Once the county clerk validates the petitions and the Board of Supervisors certifies it, the governor has 120 days to appoint a county formation commission composed of two residents of the proposed county, two from the existing county and one person from outside the county. The commission then has 180 days — plus a possible 180-day extension — to research the issues, conduct public hearings and spell out terms for the split. An election follows the commission's work. If voters approve the split, county supervisors and a county seat are chosen in a subsequent election. The only recourse for settling differences that arise during the process is the courts.
Since 1974, there have been eight attempts to create new counties, most recently a 1988 vote to carve a proposed Mojave County out of San Bernardino County. All eight attempts have failed to win the required majority vote in both the proposed county and in the entire existing county. The worst ballot-box defeat was for proponents of the 1978 Santa Barbara County split, which received only 22% support countywide in an election that also included Proposition 13.
The earlier Santa Barbara County movement, as well as the proposed secession in San Bernardino County and efforts in El Dorado and Fresno counties, was driven by rural residents and landowners who wanted to avoid the county's land use and building regulations, and a perceived urban dominance, said Peter Detwiler, consultant to the Senate Local Government Committee.
In a 1996 report on municipal secessions, Detwiler wrote, "With county finances in horrible shape and with dim prospects for immediate improvement, it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to create a new county." Not much has changed since then, Detwiler said recently.
The proposed split comes at a time when the balance of power in Santa Barbara County appears to be changing. Population is now evenly divided. With the north growing faster than the south, the north could take command of the Board of Supervisors soon. But Diani, of the pro-secession movement, said a 3-2 split is not healthy, no matter who has the three votes.
"It's counterproductive," Diani said. "Why can't we just shake hands and you go your way, and we'll go ours? Right now, there don't seem to be many compromises."
And Diani dismissed the idea of expanding the Santa Maria city limits greatly and incorporating the community of Orcutt. That would get secession proponents "only part-way" because the county government would still control some things.
During the 1978 election, Santa Maria was a pro-secession stronghold. Since then, some city elected officials have continued to advocate for a split, but current Mayor Larry Lavagnino said he is undecided. The city gets along fine with the county, he said. But Lavagnino does not deny the differences between north and south. The Santa Barbara area is full of rich people and service workers, while Santa Maria has a broader demographic base that includes a sizeable middle class, the mayor contended.
Furthermore, said Lavagnino, "We don't view growth as a bogeyman."
Local attitudes toward growth are pivotal, said former county supervisor Fletcher, now a development consultant. He noted that the county grand jury nearly every year for a decade has criticized the county Planning Department for its slow and expensive processing of development applications.
"Land use is probably the biggest thing that we think would be different in a new county," Fletcher said.
But secession skeptics and opponents say the county's deliberate planning process reflects a citizenry that demands extensive scrutiny and public review of proposed development. Plus, there is no guarantee development would get the green light in Mission County because the California Environmental Quality Act, state and federal endangered species laws, the Clean Water Act and other perceived obstacles to growth would still apply.
Then there is the question of whether a new county would be fiscally viable. Currently, the south pulls in about 95% of the county's hotel bed tax receipts, nearly 80% of the county's sales tax revenue and 64% of property taxes, according to a series on the split by the Santa Barbara News-Press
. Yet the north county generates four-fifths of the social service caseload. And, of course, the new county would need new public facilities, including a jail and juvenile hall.
Brown, the CAO, told the Board of Supervisors in May that the process alone would cost the county from $659,000 to $836,000, not including elections or staff time spent assisting the county formation commission. Brown's report also included page after page of questions about how assets, liabilities, services and responsibilities would be divided.
County officials have not come right out and said that the south currently subsidizes the north, but the implications are there and Diani does not like them.
"They [county officials] are not being as constructive as they should be," Diani said. "They are putting out information that is speculative at best. They don't have any better information than we have. … We need the study. If it doesn't work economically, it's probably not a good idea."
Secession backers say that an independent poll found substantial support for their effort. Still, taxpayer groups and business owners appear divided themselves. With the proposed boundary, the Santa Barbara wine country — largely in the Santa Ynez Valley — would end up in Mission County. Vintners who have worked as hard to cultivate the Santa Barbara wine appellation as they have high-quality grapes may oppose secession because they do not want to lose their brand name. The same goes for Santa Barbara tourism boosters, who often include the wine country, the Dutch-themed town of Solvang, and the renowned wildflower fields around Lompoc in their pitches.
The boundary line itself appears to have generated little controversy except for the inclusion of Lake Cachuma, which supplies water to Santa Barbara and surrounding communities, in Mission County. The lake supplies no water to the north county but does serve as flood control for Buellton, Solvang and Lompoc. Otherwise, the line is a natural, giving Mission County the agricultural areas north and east of the mountains that frame Santa Barbara and the Gaviota coast.
Secession proponents have until September 30 to submit petitions signed by 20,779 registered voters. An exact election date is uncertain.
Jim Diani, Citizens for County Organization, (805) 925-9533.
Harrell Fletcher, former Santa Barbara County supervisor, (805) 928-6463.
Michael Brown, Santa Barbara County administrator, (805) 568-3400.
Larry Lavagnino, Santa Maria mayor, (805) 925-0951.
Peter Detwiler, Senate Local Government Committee, (916) 445-9748.
Citizens for County Organization website: www.cfcostudy.com
Santa Barbara News-Press series: Can This County Be Saved?