Vote! Everything depends on it

My first exposure to the nuts and bolts of the land development process was in late 1989 when a notice arrived in the mail about an upcoming hearing for a proposal to build a 300-house ocean-front development on a sweeping and beloved blufftop area near our home in Goleta. I had finished my degree at UCSB a few months earlier, and Diane and I had just married and moved to the area the previous month.

We attended the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) scoping hearing, met several of our neighbors for the first time, and found we all had concerns about the proposed project. Over the next few months, we learned from other neighbors who had some knowledge about the planning process and provided our public comment on the EIR as it was developed. The huge negative impacts of the project were becoming clearly documented in the EIR, and we felt confident that it would be obvious to decision makers that this project couldn’t be approved. We had succeeded! (Spoiler alert: Nope.)

More months passed as the developer submitted last-minute changes to the plan necessitating further analysis. After three years of various twists and turns, the County Planning Commission voted in November 1992 to recommend denial of the project. Finally, real victory! (Spoiler alert: Again, nope!)

The developer had one more shot at the County Board of Supervisors who would consider the Planning Commission recommendation but could still approve or deny the project. Through winter and spring of 1993, the supervisors reviewed the proposal, and in June they were ready to decide.

Now let me backup a little. Then, as now, Santa Barbara County politics were deeply divided along North vs. South, pro-development vs. slow-growth perspectives. In November 1992, South County resident Bill Wallace was the incumbent Third District Supervisor being challenged by North County resident Willy Chamberlin. That election went down in history as the closest supervisorial election in county history. The certified election result showed Chamberlin winning by seven votes. A month-long recount resulted in Chamberlin’s margin being reduced to only five votes. In January 1993, he was sworn into office as supervisor. For the first time in decades, three of the five supervisors were pro-development.

Wallace contested the election in court claiming dozens of valid votes were not counted in Isla Vista, which had voted exceptionally strongly in his favor. Court decisions were made, an appeal was filed, and things were still in process in June 1993.

With Chamberlin still in office as supervisor, he voted with the two other pro-development supervisors to approve the housing project. Oh no! We lost! (Spoiler alert: Nope to that too.)

Fast forward through Coastal Commission actions and various lawsuits filed by the group we had formed with our neighbors. In April 1994, 17 months after the election, a state Court of Appeals ruled Chamberlin did not win, but in fact lost by 12 votes. He was replaced on the Board of Supervisors by slow-growth advocate Bill Wallace… but all Chamberlin’s decisions stood.

Although heavily constrained by the Board’s previous decisions, with Wallace on the Board new decisions began to shift the trajectory of the project. Again, fast-forward through years of more lawsuits, more elections, and more county and Coastal Commissions decisions. In 2005, escrow closed on a complex deal that permanently protected the coastal blufftop under public ownership. Wait, we finally won? YES!

We have all heard stories about how “every vote counts,” maybe in an election in some town in Iowa with 132 people where some guy loses the race for dogcatcher by one vote because he and his wife were too busy campaigning to vote. But the Wallace-Chamberlin election had over 36,000 votes cast, and the margin of victory was seven… until it was 12 the other way.

“Every vote counts”? Yes. But it really only counts if it is submitted correctly and on time. In grade school we were taught to follow directions carefully. Quite possibly, the most important reason for that lesson was so we could make sure our vote would count when we grew up.

Here is one way to summarize what is required for a democratic society to prosper:

Step 1: You must care enough to want to make a difference.

Step 2: You must act to make that difference.

In this column, I often address aspects of both steps, generally with the goal of motivating you to tell our civic leaders what is important to you. But I hope you can see from my experience above that this effort can be wasted time if you don’t care enough to act with your vote to select leaders who will work in your best interest—at the local, state and national levels.

Vote! Everything depends on it.