Rocks and Landscaping Still Winning over Santa Barbara County at Hot Springs Trail

Hikers hefting firewood, flicking lit matches, hauling up a 400-pound statue — even someone jumping an electric gate to open it and stash their car inside. Stories abound regarding recent events at Montecito’s Hot Springs Trail. But none appeared in Judge Donna Geck’s 20-page ruling that decided Santa Barbara County must wait for a trial before reclaiming the public land in front of three properties that adjoin the trailhead. The case involves four petitioners and a quantity of landscaping, large rocks, and homemade “no parking” signs. The four sued the county and insist an environmental report must be done before the county can remove the obstacles and clear the right of way for parking.

In her tentative ruling, made final at the conclusion of Friday morning’s hearing, the judge explained the constraints that faced her: The question today was not about trail issues; it was whether the county had observed California’s environmental laws as it sought to remove landscaping and impediments on the shoulder portion of East Mountain Drive. In considering an injunction to delay the removals from the public right of way, she had to balance the petitioners’ chance of winning their case at trial against the harm to them, or to the county, if the right of way were peremptorily restored.

The judge also took issue with what she described as an “allegedly” issued Notice of Exemption by the county, which would remove the project from CEQA’s environmental review obligations. Noting the petitioners’ surprise to learn it existed, the judge wrote, “The County has requested this Court to take judicial notice of the Notice; there is no evidence before the Court to support its proper posting or publication.” Geck added that a project bearing the same number had been posted for a study to restore the right of way on September 14, 2021, and was titled as implementation of the actual work as of February 28, 2022. The homeowners received notice they had to remove their right-of-way encroachments on Feburary 7, 2022, the judge recounted.

Much like the trail itself, which wanders uphill in one direction to the newly popular hot spring pools and in other directions to scenic views and a linkage of trails, the ruling roves over a number of the area’s issues — parking, hikers, sensitive habitat, “skyrocketing” trail usage. It explains that the specifics of those issues — and whether or not environmental review was needed — first required a fact-finding trial. Judge Geck noted that the four petitioners — Christopher Anderson, Ross Bagdasarian, Peter Barker, and James Moreley — don’t own the three properties from which the county would like to remove the impediments to parking, but they live near the trail.

Two of the three properties were bought with the last half year, and Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the Montecito area, said two of the property owners lived out of town. He was disappointed that the ruling had in effect rewarded them for breaking the law. “Putting rocks out where people can legally park contributes to chaos and the rampant unsafe parking that does take place,” he said. “While this is a temporary injunction pending the legal challenge, it will delay efforts to increase safety and decrease conflict at the Hot Springs Trailhead.”

Williams thought all the trailhead neighbors were frustrated with the escalated use of the trail, and they were dealing with their frustration in different ways. Some of the homeowners had offered to fund a couple of rangers at the trailhead, he said. Their goal was to inform new hikers of the fire rules — no open campfires or smoking in the forest — and that the parking and trails were off-limits county once evening fell. In the two months the jobs have been available, so far they’ve received one application, he said.

In her ruling, Judge Geck also found a level of uncertainty in the quantity of parking spaces at issue — 50 spaces were removed at Riven Rock, eight exist at the trailhead, a dozen are proposed through the right-of-way project. She stated the proposed parking would add more hikers to the trail and potentially impact a creek that was known to be environmentally sensitive habitat. But all of those were also matters to be determined at trial, she wrote.

As far as the balancing of harms, Lina Sumait of the County Counsel’s office tried to persuade Judge Geck that the larger picture was not parking, hikers, and the creek’s sensitive habitat. It was the fact that a road blocked or narrowed by parked cars meant emergency responders could not drive in, a growing concern as the summer months approached. Sumait said a CEQA review was likely to take a year, rather than a “few months.” Reclaiming the right of way was not a matter of existing parking that was going unused, but rather the illegal use by a private resident of a public street. Judges rarely deviate from their tentative rulings, and sensing defeat, Sumait indicated the county would file an appeal immediately.

Unless the county succeeds on appeal, the jumbled parking controversy that dogs the Hot Springs Trailhead will continue until the trial. Because it involves CEQA, the trial will be expedited over other civil matters and be in the hands of Judge Thomas Anderle, according to the court file, who hears all CEQA cases.

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