Hikers heaving firewood, lighting matches, hoisting a 400-pound statue – even someone jumping an electric gate to open it and park their car inside (this later turned out to be the friend of a gardener). Stories abound of recent events at Montecito’s Hot Springs Trail. But none appeared in Judge Donna Geck’s 20-page ruling that said Santa Barbara County should wait for a trial before reclaiming public land in front of three properties near the trailhead. The case involves four petitioners and a host of homemade landscaping, large boulders and no parking signs. The four have sued the county and insist that an environmental report must be done before the county can remove the obstructions and clear the right-of-way for parking.
In her interim decision, made final at the end of Friday morning’s hearing, the judge explained the constraints she faced: Today’s question was not about trail issues; it was about whether the county followed California’s environmental laws as it sought to remove obstacles on the shoulder portion of East Mountain Drive. In considering an injunction to delay removals from the public right-of-way, she had to weigh the plaintiffs’ chances of winning their cases at trial against the harm to them, or to the county, if the right-of-way were peremptorily restored. In the end, another win was recorded for Rocks and Landscaping against County.
Much like the trail itself, which climbs in one direction to the newly popular hot spring pools and in other directions to scenic views and a trail link, the ruling expands on a number of area issues – parking, hikers, sensitive habitat, trail usage “skyrockets”. He explains that the details of these issues – and whether or not an environmental review was necessary – required a fact-finding trial first.
Among the facts the judge reacted to was what she described as an exemption notice “allegedly” issued by the county, which would remove the project from CEQA’s environmental review obligations. Noting the plaintiffs’ surprise to learn that it existed, the judge wrote: “The county has asked this Court to take judicial notice of the notice; there is no evidence before the Court to support its proper display or publication. Geck added that a project with the same number was posted for a right-of-way restoration study on September 14, 2021 and was titled as carrying out the actual work beginning February 28, 2022. The owners were advised that they were to remove their encroachments on the right-of-way on February 7, 2022, the judge said. The motion for writ of warrant against the county was filed in April.
Judge Geck noted that the four petitioners – Christopher Anderson, Ross Bagdasarian, Peter Barker and James Moreley – do not own the three properties whose parking barriers the county wants to remove, but they do live near the trail. Two of the three properties were purchased in the past six months, according to property records.
Supervisor Das Williams, who represents the Montecito area, said two of the owners live out of town. He was disappointed that the ruling actually rewarded them for breaking the law. “Placing rocks where people can park legally contributes to the chaos and unsafe parking that is rampant,” he said. “While this is a temporary injunction pending legal challenge, it will set back efforts to increase safety and reduce conflict at the Hot Springs trailhead.”
Williams thought all of the neighbors at the trailhead were frustrated with the increased use of the trail and were dealing with their frustration in different ways. Some of the owners had offered to fund a few rangers at the trailhead, he said. Their goal was to inform new hikers of fire rules — no open campfires or smoking in the forest — and that parking and county trails were off limits after dark. In the two months the jobs have been available, so far they have only received one application, he said.
In her decision, Judge Geck also found a level of uncertainty in the amount of parking spaces involved – 62 potential spaces on East Mountain, 50 spaces removed at Riven Rock, eight exist at the trailhead, a dozen are proposed by the right of -track project. She said the proposed parking lot would add more hikers to the trail and could impact a creek known to be ecologically sensitive habitat. But all of those issues also had to be decided at trial, she wrote.
As for the balancing of harms, Lina Sumait of the County Council’s office tried to persuade Judge Geck that the bigger picture was not parking, hikers and sensitive creek habitat. It was the fact that a road blocked or narrowed by parked cars prevented emergency responders from driving, a growing concern as the summer months approached. Sumait said a CEQA review would likely take a year, rather than “a few months”. The recovery of the right-of-way was not a matter of existing unused parking, but rather the illegal use by an individual of a public street. Judges rarely deviate from their interim rulings and, sensing defeat, Sumait said the county would appeal immediately.
Unless the county wins its appeal, the confusing parking controversy that pursues the Hot Springs Trail will continue until trial. Because it involves CEQA, the trial will be expedited on other civil cases and will be in the hands of Judge Thomas Anderle, according to the court filing, who hears all CEQA cases.