Monday, August 28, 2006

Northern Upstart: Santa Maria Surpasses Santa Barbara as Largest City in Central Coast County

Santa Maria has overtaken Santa Barbara in the number of residents, according to this Sunday Los Angeles Times story on the longstanding urban growth battle in Santa Barbara County:

What happens when the "Barbecue Capital of the World" dethrones the self-proclaimed American Riviera?

It depends, of course, on which city you're in. Here in the town that boasts that it made tri-tip famous, there were flashes of glee at the news that working-class Santa Maria had unseated glossy Santa Barbara as the most populous city in Santa Barbara County for the first time.

"We are on the way up," laughed Santa Maria Mayor Larry Lavagnino. "They have leveled off and are heading down."

They, of course, were not impressed."

It's finally happened," sniffed a Santa Barbara News-Press editorial. "But what does it matter beyond bragging rights?"

By itself, the fact that Santa Maria was home to 656 more people as of Jan. 1 than its graceful, famous neighbor to the south doesn't really mean much. But the state Department of Finance's late spring announcement is one more harbinger of change here on the Central Coast and throughout California — where population continues its determined march inland and fast-growing regions hope influence follows.

As the longtime underdog in this geographic rivalry and the unofficial capital of the north county, Santa Maria, at least, is betting that population will breed power and that the burgeoning north's interests will someday trump those of the shrinking, slow-growth south.

Because a lot is at stake here in Santa Barbara County. Developers have their eyes on the pristine Gaviota Coast, from Isla Vista to Vandenberg Air Force Base. The north county's oil reserves are increasingly attractive in this $70-a-barrel era. The county Board of Supervisors has a conservative, pro-industry majority for the first time in nearly a decade, but growth is actually making the political picture more complicated than ever."

At the end of the day, who's moving north?" asked political consultant John Davies. "Some of the same people who would be voting in the south" but can't afford to live there anymore.

These days, a state's worth of struggles are playing out across this county. There's inland versus coast and north versus south, rural versus urban, and poor versus rich. There's young versus old, development versus slow growth, Republican versus Democrat. There's property rights versus environment, affordability versus million-dollar tract houses, pickup trucks versus BMWs.

Over the last five years — and for the foreseeable future — job growth in the north county has trumped the south, according to the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project, which also noted that Santa Maria's population jumped 3.6% last year, while Santa Barbara's dropped 0.4 %. It should come as no surprise that both trends are fueled, at least in part, by housing. The median home price in Santa Maria was $455,000 in July; in Santa Barbara, it was $1.05 million.Santa Maria is "an economically vigorous place," said Bill Watkins, forecast director. "In some sense, the center of the county is migrating to the north…. [But] I'm not sure the south always knows there's a north county."

Or as Santa Barbara resident Angelina Favia, 25, replied when asked what she thinks about Santa Maria: "I don't really think about Santa Maria."And therein lies the rub. The north county has forever felt like a stepchild to "sophisticated" Santa Barbara and the south coast, said housing activist Bud Laurent. Santa Maria has had "housing policies that said grow, grow, grow. It's tempting to interpret that as a strategy for gaining more power in county politics."If there is a single statistic that symbolizes the yawning distance between Santa Barbara (population 89,548) and Santa Maria (population 90,204), it would be housing permits rather than miles.
This is a very interesting article. I lived in Santa Barbara from 1992 to 1999, while attenting
graduate school in political science at UC Santa Barbara. It's absolutely true, as noted by city local Angelina Favia above, that Santa Barbara residents hardly even think about Santa Maria, and it's no wonder. Santa Barbara is probably as close to paradise as one can get, a city that ranks among the top coastal destinations anywhere in the world in stunning beauty, with temperate climate year round, miles of sandy beaches, and a wealth of cultural and historical attractions. When I graduated from my Ph.D. program in late-'99, I naturally was reluctant to leave the city -- indeed, if I could live anywhere in California, Santa Barbara would be my first pick.

But slow growth has its downside. When my wife and I first moved to Santa Barbara in '92, it was interesting to notice how slow-growth politics had affected the city's development. K-Mart was the largest merchant, besides a couple of major downtown department stores (including Nordstrom's). Big-box retailers would not arrive (in the form of Costco) until about 1998. There was virtually no new housing development in city the whole time we were there, and it wasn't unusual for new professors hired by the university to seek homes far from the university, in northern towns such as Lompoc. Apartment rentals were very expensive, and as the article notes, the city's housing market is basically unaffordable for the middle class. Slow-growth policies can be felt in ways such as highway congestion, energy consumption, air pollution, concentrated poverty in the rental housing market, declines in elementary school enrollment, and spillover growth to the north and south, in cities like Oxnard, for example.

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