Rebuilding at Ground Zero
By Melinda Burns
Mary Beth Myers wanted to spend the night of Jan. 8 at her old cottage on the banks of Montecito Creek, just below the bridge at East Valley Road and Parra Grande Lane – but she couldn’t get a fire going in the chimney.
“I loved being there in the rains, feeding the fire and listening to the boulders roll down the creek,” Myers said. “I tried all day to get the fire started with alcohol, dried wood, crumpled paper – but I couldn’t. It was cold, dark and wet, so I left the cat a couple of bowls of food, and I thought, ‘No way will I stay.’ It was some kind of divine intervention.
“There’s not a trace where my house was … nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Before dawn on Jan. 9, a catastrophic debris flow of mud and boulders swept through Myers’ neighborhood in the 1200 block of East Valley Road, formerly part of a historic pocket of Montecito known as ‘Old Spanishtown.’ Eleven people died there, or nearly half of all those who perished in the disaster. Of the 11, nine had lived next door to Myers. Five were immigrants from Mexico and Thailand.
“They were all hard-working, very busy people,” Myers said. “This was not the Montecito people think of. It was like a village in itself. I miss my neighbors.”
But even as she mourns them, Myers is eager to return to the once-picturesque sycamore and oak woodland along the creek. She is asking the county to approve her plans for a two-story, corrugated steel house on nine concrete caissons sunk deep into the ground where her cottage once stood. Today, a twisted chandelier dangles from a tree, marking the spot. The cottage, parts of which dated back to the 1890s, was uninsured.
“My friends say, ‘You can’t possibly think about rebuilding there,’” Myers said. “But what I loved is it was literally nature. I had this whole creek. The view was magical – an untouched acre of California, a borrowed landscape.”
“Is it buildable? Yes, in theory,” Myers said. On Zillow, the online real estate marketplace, her property was valued before Jan. 9 at $1.8 million. “Feels like countryside living,” the advertisement read.
“I’m just pushing to build so that if it’s a buildable lot, then I’ll get my money out,” Myers said. “If I can build, I probably will build. Would I feel safe living there? Hard to say. If the weather’s bad enough, I’m just going to leave.”
First in line
Myers is one of the first in line with her rebuilding plans, out of more than 200 property owners whose homes were destroyed on Jan. 9 or remain badly damaged. Her property has been under county review since 2014, when she bought the 3,400 square-foot parcel by the creek and set out to prove that the lot was legal. She calls it “the smallest lot in Montecito.”
Now Myers’ plans are raising the key questions that all parties will face, if the community is to withstand the next flood or debris flow: How, when and where is it safe to rebuild? Should some land be preserved as a memorial park to remember the dead or, for safety’s sake, as watershed open space? (The Facebook page for a future “Montecito Memorial Healing & Meditation Park” has 760 members, but the group has not made any formal proposals.)
In June last year, the Montecito Planning Commission approved Myers’ request for a waiver from county rules that require new homes to be set back at least 50 feet from the bank of a creek. The lot was so small that strict application of the 50-foot rule would have “effectively precluded” any development there, the commission found. Myers is proposing to build within 23 feet of Montecito Creek.
This February, the Montecito Board of Architectural Review congratulated Myers and her architect, Jeff Shelton, for a design that was “beautifully done” – a small, dark-green house with holes for woodpeckers under the eaves. Shelton told the board that Myers’ cottage had survived all the historic floods of the 20th century.
“We have to come up with some way to rebuild,” he said.
But board member Claire Gottsdanker was not so sure. She asked how she could make the required finding that the proposed home would “blend in” with the neighborhood if the neighborhood was no longer there.
“I’m having trouble doing that in my mind,” she said, adding that a driveway easement from one of Myers’ late neighbors also was now in doubt. “It just seems there’s a lot of work that needs to go into the project, prior to it coming back to us.”
In an interview, Gottsdanker wondered why Myers’ project was “even on the agenda.”
“You literally can’t get there because the road is gone,” she said. “You cannot go from Sycamore Canyon Road to the other side of East Valley. There is no bridge there. It says, ‘Road closed. Disaster area.” And we’re being asked to approve a project there?
“Are we going to keep building houses back where they might wash away? Isn’t that why we have health and safety regulations? The experts have told us it’s possible that these mountains are going to come down again next winter.”
Architectural board approval for Myers’ plans is still pending, along with county land use and building permits. On May 15, the county Board of Supervisors will consider exempting other property owners from all but a building permit, should they decide to rebuild.
Historically, the banks of Montecito Creek where 11 people died in close proximity on Jan. 9 formed part of a Latino community along East Valley, west of Hot Springs Road, that was established in the 1800s. Mexican soldiers of the Santa Barbara Presidio were granted parcels of land in lieu of long-overdue pay; they chose the creek for its dependable supply of water.
Spanishtown was Montecito’s first non-native residential settlement. By 1920, it was a community of cooks, craftsmen, laborers and artisans who worked for the big estates. They had their own co-op grocery store, saloons, dance halls, inn, church and jail. Most of those buildings have long since disappeared. But it was not surprising that immigrant gardeners and produce workers were recently living in affordable housing there, at the western edge of Montecito.
The Jan. 9 debris flow destroyed or badly damaged some of the last remaining remnants of Spanishtown on both sides of the creek. One of the structures that was swept away was an old saloon near the southeastern end of the bridge that had been refurbished as housing by the Montecito Fire Protection District. It was vacant on Jan. 9.
Two other old homes on district property were damaged: a firefighter and a dispatcher lived there with their families, but no one was hurt. But the west bank of Montecito Creek, where Myers’ neighbors died, is lower than the east bank, and it took the brunt of the fast-moving debris.
“I’m not ruling out the possibility, because of what happened there, that that area may be a park,” Myers said. “It’s the least expensive area in Montecito and it has historical significance. This is going to be a very long process, and I’m trying to be mentally prepared, either way. My main objective is to recoup my investment so that I can breathe a little easier.”
Debris flow cycle
The county Flood Control District, which reviews plans for building permits, has made it clear that everyone who wants to rebuild in Montecito will be able to do so.
“There will be some challenging parcels, but one of the misconceptions out in the community is that there are going to be parcels that the county will not allow to be rebuilt,” Jon Frye, Flood Control engineering manager, told the Montecito Planning Commission last month. “I have never heard that in county discussions. We don’t know where that came from.”
At the same time, the push to rebuild makes some Montecitans uneasy. Joe Cole, the commission chairman, asked Frye why the county wants to get people back in their homes “sooner rather than later,” when the whole community faces the danger of another debris flow in the next three-to-five years, given enough rain. That’s how long it may take for the vegetation to grow back on the scorched mountainsides of the Thomas Fire.
“If it’s riskier, why wouldn’t you want people to wait?” Cole asked. “Is it because you want to get people back on their feet? Is it property tax?”
Frye replied that “sadly,” there was a “fairly dependable 30-to-40-year cycle” of damaging debris flows and debris-laden floods in Montecito.
“We can pull out reports from our bookshelf from the 1969 floods, where unfortunately some of these very same homes suffered the very same fate with rock piled up to the eaves,” he said.
Cole asked again: “Why would we want to move in a year from now and be evacuated every time it rains? Just on pure life safety, wouldn’t it be better to wait three-to-five years?”
Frye answered: “We’re looking at this recovery as a pie. The flood control is merely a piece of that pie. There are so many other pieces that get into legal, financial and social aspects. It all becomes a big part of that recovery. That’s the best I can do to answer that.”
For Myers, it all comes down to common sense.
“I don’t think anything would withstand an avalanche of boulders,” she said. “The idea is, build your best, get insurance, keep your valuables in a duffle bag and if it’s an evacuation, by God, get out of the way.”
Like most owners whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged on Jan. 9, Myers has decided to wait for the Federal Emergency Management Agency “recovery map” of the area before she submits her final plans for county review.
The FEMA map, which is expected in June, will show new floodwater elevations along Montecito and Carpinteria Valley creeks, based on the changed topography, post-Jan. 9.
In Myers’ blueprints, the first floor of her proposed house is elevated two feet off the ground. If the FEMA map comes up with higher flood water elevations for her property, Myers said, she will ask Shelton to redesign the house so that the first floor is at least two feet above the mapped flood water elevation, as the county requires.
“You tell me where’s a safe place and no tragedy has ever happened,” Myers said. “I liken it to when I lived in Malibu in 1994 and there were fires, floods and earthquakes. At a certain point, how do you define ‘safe’? How do you define ‘home’? You just can’t say no to everything.”
Melinda Burns is a freelance journalist based in Santa Barbara.