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Protesters challenge proposal to demolish Solvang vets hall, build hotels; Council continues public comment

Protesters challenge proposal to demolish Solvang vets hall, build hotels; Council continues public comment

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Solvang City Council members got an earful during a special meeting Tuesday afternoon to consider a proposal for a mixed-use development that calls for, among other things, the demolition of Veterans Memorial Hall.

The proposal also drew dozens of sign-toting protestors outside City Hall in the hours leading up to the meeting.

“Don’t rip the heart out of Solvang for the price of a few dollars promised to you by a developer. By ripping out the heart of Solvang that is the Vets Hall, that is what you are doing,” said Andreas Pyper.

According to city staff, development of the 7-acre site bordered by Mission Drive (Highway 246), Pine Street, Maple Avenue and Alisal Road has been discussed by city councils since 2008. Development at or near the hall was again addressed during the 2019-20 budget cycle goal-setting sessions and “at least four public meetings on the City Visioning Process,” according to Mayor Ryan Toussaint.

The project was proposed just before the COVID-19 shutdown as a partnership with developer Ed St. George, who owns “the old lumberyard” at 1783 and 1793 Mission Drive. It calls for the construction of 112 guest rooms in two hotels, 36,000 to 49,000 square feet of commercial space, 105 to 181 housing units, and 300 to 400 parking spaces on about 5 acres of city- and county-owned property and 2.19 acres of privately held property.

In addition, the initial proposal, presented by Jarrett Gorin of Santa Barbara-based Vanguard Planning, calls for development of Solvang Park and two downtown parking lots. It also calls for relocating many services currently housed at Veterans Memorial Hall to a new structure at the corner of Maple and Alisal. Those services include Solvang Library, Senior Center and veterans programs.

Acting City Manager Xenia Bradford said the two-phase plan would also require the relocation of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s substation and Santa Barbara County Courts off site.

“We think this would be a better way to use this land. It provides community amenities. It would provide revenues. I think it would draw a lot of people to Solvang that aren’t coming here yet and this may be a reason why they would come here for the first time and keep coming back here. …We’re also hoping that it would draw your residents here to it,” Gorin said.

Bradford estimated the project would increase the property’s value to $100 million, providing $100,000 to the city in property tax. She also estimated the additional hotel rooms would generate $600,000 in transient occupancy tax, also known as “hotel bed tax,” and boost the city’s annual sales tax revenues by $84,000.

The council agreed to extend the public comment period on the project to another meeting in the next two weeks, potentially outdoors to allow for social distancing required by COVID-19 guidelines, and took no additional action. Staff had recommended the council approve the conceptual plan and enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement.

Residents filed in to council chambers, utilized internet conferencing and mailed in comments which largely opposed the project.

“We who live here should decide what the best use of the land is. We didn’t ask you to destroy the Vets Hall or the library. My mom goes to the senior center. That area is part of our daily lives,” said Santa Ynez Valley resident Linda Hanly.

Among the comments, opponents noted the plan: didn’t address the city’s need to break away from its dependence on the tourism industry, particularly post COVID-19; was inconsistent with the general plan; failed to address traffic potential traffic congestion; equated the needs of Solvang’s 7,000 residents to those of Copenhagen, Denmark’s 795,000 residents; defied the city’s own design and zoning elements’ 35-foot peak limit; and failed to address water and sewer capacities needed for the project as well as affordable housing for workers serving the new businesses there.

Solvang Senior Center President Alice Olla spoke out in opposition to the project, noting the program has already begun a capital campaign to double their square footage to meet the needs of the valley’s growing senior population.

“The project doesn’t benefit us,” Olla said.

Jan Hubbell, a Solvang resident and land use planning consultant, said the four-story proposal along Mission Drive would create a “fortress-like wall” that lacked setback and was out of scale with the rest of the village.

But the potential loss of the Veterans Memorial Hall, built in 1936 to memorialize veterans while also providing them meeting space in perpetuity, tapped a common nerve.

“Please don’t forget the moral obligation that … it was built to be, in perpetuity, a memorial to veterans,” said Solvang resident Chris Nielsen.

Bruce Porter noted it was particularly ironic that the council would discuss the destruction of the memorial to veterans the day following Memorial Day.

Only one resident spoke in support of the project.

“If we do not put the hotel there, we would very likely be forced to have Section 8 housing that would be a negative for our community and we would have more criminals from Lompoc moving here,” said Hazel Mortensen, who also referred to Pine Street as a “slum.”

Tuesday’s meeting represented the beginning of the process, Bradford emphasized. The plan has not been fully developed, has not gone through the city development process, and was put forth to receive community input. Next steps would include community workshops with particular focus on community services currently being provided on the site.

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GUEST COMMENTARY If the Solvang city council cannot do the right thing and pull the plug on this downtown development proposal, then put it to a vote of the citizens of Solvang. We guarantee the development will be overwhelmingly condemned.

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