CAN THIS COUNTY BE SAVED?




 

The Great Divide
 
Longtime battle over who controls the board of supervisors was genesis of effort to split county in two
 
By MICHAEL TODD
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
9/22/02


MIKE ELIASON/NEWS-PRESS
The picturesque landscapes of the north and south are the scene of a bitter political struggle. Above, a horseman makes his way down a private road off Highway 246 in the Santa Ynez Valley. Below, joggers and bicyclists stroll along the walkways of Shoreline Park in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara County's 3rd supervisorial district encompasses 950 square miles of beaches, mountains and rolling ranchland, where a university nurtures scholars, nature raises mountains and citizens sow discord.

At present, the 3rd District hosts a bitter struggle to recall Supervisor Gail Marshall for not adequately reflecting the North County portion of her district. Whether Ms. Marshall survives the recall or not, the forces jousting in her district symbolize a far broader and deeper division of economic, political and social interests polarizing the county as two cities of comparable size, Santa Maria and Santa Barbara, vie for control of public policy.

Even as the Marshall recall commands the media spotlight before the Nov. 5 vote, another North County campaign is working to secede from Santa Barbara County and form a new jurisdiction, called Mission County. That effort carries potentially far greater impact - in transportation, social services, education and taxes, to name just a few areas - for every one of the 400,000 residents of Santa Barbara County.


The county-split movement not only reflects longtime political fault lines - between north and south, growth and slow-growth, limited government and activist government - but echoes secessionist movements like the one in Los Angeles County's San Fernando Valley.

"All of the secession movements share something in common," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, head of the policy institute at the University of Southern California, and a part-time resident of Carpinteria. "They (feel) they are not being served ... they need to secede, to circle the wagons around a smaller, more representative government."

In this county, the split effort is the latest manifestation in a history of breakaway movements that last surfaced in 1978.

In the current north-south war, the biggest battles revolve around land use by agriculturalists - preserving oaks, grading farmland, saving endangered species - but these have not been the only flash points. The county's position on funding for the Boy Scouts of America and renters' rights split on a north-south axis, and the county Human Relations Commission has introduced such issues as the living wage, handgun control and slave reparations.

The particulars of the movements have changed, but the underlying ethos was poetically expressed by a nonpartisan panel formed to study the 1978 county-split effort:

"People who have built windbreaks of trees to hold the soil in place, and who have raised levees to contain an errant river, as they have in Santa Maria, view the fertile valley they have created as their triumph over harsh nature. Their attitude toward the works of man is bound to be different from that of settlers of the more benign south coast, who view the ecologically fragile region which shelters them with a sense of stewardship, and wish to protect it from man-made harm."

In the broadest sense, there is a feeling that decisions made in line with the more liberal philosophies of the politically dominant South Coast too often come at the practical expense of the more conservative north.

"In a way, I sort of understand why they're doing it," Margaret Connell, mayor of the newly sovereign city of Goleta, says of secession proponents. "They have some perceptions that are perhaps incorrect, but it's true that if you feel you're always on the losing end, that's the sort of thing that gets people to thinking about independence."

In few places, outside perhaps the rural areas of Virginia, the dairy country of Pennsylvania or the parishes of Louisiana, do counties capture the popular imagination. In California, where extremes in the form - San Bernardino is the nation's largest county in size at 20,062 square miles; Alpine is the smallest in population with a scant 1,200 residents - are the norm, only Orange County seems to have made the leap from a polygon of dotted lines into a coherent place on most mental maps.

"I hope," said Steve Keil, a legislative coordinator with the California State Association of Counties, "the proponents are going into this with an understanding of the sophistication of the undertaking. Counties are the most complex form of government in the state," he said, a hybrid creature without the sweeping powers of cities or legislatures but with the financial and social burdens of ever-increasing state mandates

Counties are a creation of the state to deliver services, and the menu of services offered varies according to what sub-government - city, special district, homeowners association - has taken responsibility for some municipal services. The services provided to all include social services, like welfare and public health, and the justice system.

Most of the residents in the old, and possibly new, counties live in incorporated cities, where police, fire and street maintenance responsibilities lie with those governments. Only outside city boundaries, where a minority of county residents live but a majority of land lies, does the county have responsibility for land-use decisions.

The American Land Rights Association, one of the warriors of the sagebrush rebellion, sums up what many split proponents feel about local policies: "Santa Barbara County already has some of the most severe state and local zoning and land-use controls in the entire United States."

Local rebels have their own bill of wrongs. They 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.

A group called Citizens for County Organization is leading the split effort. "CFCO," they write on their Web site, "believes a county split will enhance the ability of each region to be more responsive to the needs and desires of its constituency and therefore better reflect the regional philosophies and the differences."

That thinking finds some open ears in the south. "I'm hearing more and more expressions of support here on the South Coast because they want to disassociate themselves with what's going on up there," said Bud Laurent, known in Santa Barbara as the executive director of the Community Environmental Council, who earlier served as a county supervisor in San Luis Obispo County.

A review of voting records shows North County politically is akin to the Central Valley, and the South Coast to the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Although the steering committee is overwhelmingly Republican and its rhetoric certainly resides on the right, advocates of secession do not identify with a political party. Harrell Fletcher, former county supervisor from Santa Maria and the ramrod behind the 1978 split measure, identifies himself as a Democrat.

Ironically, demographics soon could change the way a new county tilts. Latinos make up a majority of the burgeoning population in North County, and their future votes could dramatically change the political patterns of the region. While some high profile Latinos have conservative credentials - such as Assemblyman Abel Maldonado or split-backing mayors Joe Centeno of Santa Maria and Sam Arca of Guadalupe - the Latino bloc traditionally votes Democratic.

"The new county is going to be diverse," said Pedro Nava, president of the Santa Barbara Community Action Network and a member of the California Coastal Commission, "and will have a variety of viewpoints. It will be a real case of 'you ought to be careful about what you wish for.'"

LET'S WORK TOGETHER

California politics, said Southern California land-use and political consultant Doug Jeffe, "always seems to come down to development."

In Santa Barbara County, a nuanced version of that formulation shows that the alliance of pavers and farmers pushing the county split seem more intent on pursuing their right to maintain open space as they see fit, and not solely to erect strip malls. The fear among those opposing secession is that at some point Mission County would become, well, Orange County.

Brian Trautwein, staff attorney for the environmentally focused advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Center, said any new county will not escape old responsibilities. "I think it would be a little more work to deal with two separate staffs and two separate boards," he said, "but the natural resources are still there and our job is to protect and preserve them." He added there are citizens in the North County who are already reaching out to the EDC, such as Orcutt residents fearing rampant growth.

Mr. Nava says the "Wild West mentality" is no longer valid and needs to be replaced with a more cooperative vision. "The idea of Manifest Destiny, 40 acres and a mule, is gone."

And not all those with their own 40 acres, the county's land interests, favor a split. Discounting the federal government, which through Vandenberg Air Force Base and Los Padres National Forest is the biggest landlord in both halves of the county, wineries are the biggest economic force in land use - and they generally frown on secession.

"The wine industry has invested a lot of money in the Santa Barbara County name from a marketing standpoint, and they would hate to see that go," said Kevin Merrill of Los Alamos, head of the Central Coast Wine Growers Association. "If you could somehow get around that hurdle, the name recognition, it might be different."

The biggest impediment to his industry, added Mr. Merrill, besides the current saturation of the market, is the inability to open new facilities. While the county plays a role in that, the hunt for the elusive tiger salamander, a federally endangered species, is the real obstacle. Regardless of the locally governing agency, the salamander melodrama ultimately plays out at federal - and not county - courthouses.

"The antiquated notion that anyone acts alone in this complex society needs to be discarded," said Mr. Nava. There's a "host of laws" that any new entity would be bound to follow to accommodate the needs of various constituencies. Offshore oil development, he pointed out, is handled by state and federal agencies, and not by the county.

To the south, cut-flower grower Rene Van Wingerden also has had his problems with regulation, and found the situation sufficiently dire that his company, Ocean Breeze International, has located new operations in southern San Luis Obispo County. But like the wine growers' concerns about the salamander, another issue well beyond county control has him scared - housing costs.

"Government regulation? We can deal with it. You can work with regulation but you cannot keep treading water" on affordable housing for his work force. He opposes the split - although he might find common ground with many of the backers' grievances - partly because it doesn't address the issues he finds most pressing.

"I don't want a swing to the right," he said. "What we need is consistency, a more balanced approach."

VITRIOL ON TAP

In many ways, Ms. Marshall's district, which physically straddles the great divide, encapsulates the dynamic and the invective of the secession movement. A decade before the recall effort, it was the scene of the county's most knock-down, drag-out political scrap of recent times - the election of rancher Willy Chamberlin to the seat and his removal a year later after a recount determined he'd lost by five votes.

Mr. Chamberlin, considered a champion of property rights, had defeated longtime incumbent Bill Wallace of Isla Vista; Mr. Chamberlin's year-long tenure has been seen as halcyon days by North County conservatives ever since.

When Mr. Wallace was returned to office, new rumblings of a Los Padres County movement grew louder, but subsided in the recession of the time. Mr. Wallace did not run again in 1996, but Mr. Chamberlin did. He faced a community activist and garden center co-owner with a relatively low public profile: Gail Marshall. The face had changed, but the seeds of rancor, dormant in the gentlemanly exchanges that came before, germinated.

"Just from what I pick up, there seems to be a higher level of acrimony and vituperativeness than what I experienced," said Mr. Laurent, the former San Luis Obispo County supervisor. "We had our critics who would show up and smote us hip and thigh, but the level of anger and hostility has reached a level I don't believe San Luis Obispo County came close to matching."

"Currently, every resident of Santa Barbara County is adversely impacted by the polarization of the county," said Gilbert Armijo, a conservative political analyst in Santa Maria.

But he doesn't counsel mediation: "The is no resolution of the deep polarization in the county because the South Coast will never relinquish political control of the existing county governmental structure."

"Go out on the street and ask anyone up here what they think of the county and you'll get an earful," Mr. Fletcher challenged the News-Press last year. "They hate the county (government)."

Repeated exercises never generated the exact results he predicted, but percentages do rise among those who vote regularly. Most people seem chary of government period, although the county split idea lies mostly off their personal radar screens.

"People have to keep an open mind on how many people are actually really speaking out for this," said Mr. Nava, who makes no bones about opposing the split. "Is it a noisy majority? Wouldn't it be awful if a noisy minority started to dictate for the majority?"

Should Ms. Marshall be ousted, and current Sheriff Jim Thomas take the seat, the 3-2 votes on the Board of Supervisors presumably would swing the other way. The North County would take the political ascendancy, and while advocates of a split say their effort is not contingent on the recall's outcome, it would be a signal moment in the dispute, whatever the decision.

"If Gail Marshall is recalled, that may defuse the whole thing," said Mrs. Bebitch Jeffe. With de facto control of the government, those who wanted a greater say in their fate will have it, she added, and the dark mutterings for secession might then be heard from south of the Gaviota rest stops.

HISTORY

California itself has toyed with splitting in two or even three, dating back as far as its constitutional convention in 1849. Santa Barbara delegate José Carrillo proposed two states, with the north-south dividing line passing through San Luis Obispo. A decade later, Los Angeles Assemblyman Andrˇs Pico suggested cutting California in two along the northern border of San Luis Obispo County. That idea actually passed on a public vote, but the effort withered with the advent of the mother of all secession movements, the Civil War.

Those early efforts, based on the limited infrastructure of the day, reflected an approach to division that was more pragmatic than philosophical. A 1992 attempt proposed by Assemblyman Stan Stathem to create three Californias was based more on keeping the water and woods of the north from the people and power in the south.

The urge to diverge is equally old along California's middle coast, where difficult communications fostered the original hiving off of Ventura County in 1875, and difficult personalities led to several attempts to further subdivide, including an 1885 stab at crafting a Purisima County out of the "arbitrary stepmother" of Santa Barbara. The latest attempt was a 1978 ballot initiative to create a Los Padres County; it failed by an almost 5-to-1 margin countywide. That effort was led by Harrell Fletcher, then the county supervisor from Santa Maria and now the eminence grise of land consultants in the north.

Despite the setback, talk of a divorce never fully dissipated. "It was in the background, it always seemed to be there right below the surface," recalled Wayne Agner, managing editor of the Santa Maria Times for a dozen years beginning in 1988. "I think it kind of ebbed and flowed, and whenever Santa Barbara County would do something particularly stupid, it would rise to the top."

Mr. Agner would often end his conversations with the tag line, "Well, there's always Los Padres County."

It was, he said, "a running joke - or a running hope - that it might happen."

Since 1974, when state law changed so that only a simple majority vote, rather than a two-thirds one, was required to form a new county, there have been eight full-blown efforts to create new counties. Only one of those attempts, 1984's South Lake Tahoe County effort in El Dorado County, came close to passage, achieving 46 percent approval countywide. The 1978 Los Padres County ballot initiative, in contrast, received a 22 percent yes vote.

Currently, the city of Corona in Riverside County has discussed breaking away in an attempt to get a better handle on what services it provides to those outside its boundaries. The council there, said planning director Brad Robbins, who is overseeing the effort, has gone so far as to spend $22,000 for a feasibility analysis on the matter. The analysis is being conducted by Economic and Planning Systems, the same private consultants hired by the backers of Mission County.

email: mtodd@newspress.com

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