By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
The future of Buellton, whether the city should expand its boundaries and public safety issues were among topics tackled by mayoral and City Council candidates during a recent forum.
Mayor Holly Sierra, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service as a postmaster for Buellton, will face two challengers, Councilman Ed Andrisek and Isaac Oltmans, a brand manager, in the race for a two-year term wielding the gavel.
Two seats are up for grabs on the City Council, with incumbents Art Mercado, an irrigation supervisor, and John Sanchez joined by Elysia Lewis, a public finance manager; and Joseph Carter, a physician assistant and National Guardsman.
Andrisek and Sanchez did not participate in the forums, which involved separate sessions for mayoral and council candidates.
The Buellton Chamber of Commerce and the Santa Ynez Valley Star newspaper sponsored the forums at which topics focused on the city’s role in helping businesses coping with COVID-19 restrictions, pedestrian safety, crime rates, future growth and the purchase of Willemson property on Dairyland Road.
In 2008, Buellton voters approved an urban growth boundary initiative, restricting future expansion of the city’s borders with the expiration set for 2025.
“If a development came up that wanted to be annexed, I think the best way to do it would be to present the proposal to the residents and have them decide,” said Sierra, who is seeking her third two-year term. “I really have mixed feelings.”
Sierra said a wider sphere of influence — an area for possible future boundary and service area — could have given the city more say about the cannabis operations outside city limits but near Buellton.
Oltmans said residents support limited development in Buellton, and suggested that the city could possibly extend the timeline to get more input from residents.
He also said he was “on the fence” about whether the city should annex more land to the city, and he said he agreed with Sierra that any development should be taken to residents for a vote.
“Make it as transparent as possible,” he added.
Noting that times have changed, Mercado said the city may want to reconsider limits on sphere of influence, especially with the establishment of cannabis operations just outside the city limits.
“When you don’t have a seat at the table, you can’t change what’s happening,” Mercado said, adding that a sphere of influence would give the city a voice. “A sphere of influence just means you have to influence. It doesn’t mean you have to build.”
Saying she needed to learn more about the intricacies of sphere of influence and annexation issues, Lewis held off on revealing her stance at this time.
“What I do know is that the urban growth boundary was adopted by local voters, so what that says to me is local voters want to ensure that the growth that happens within Buellton fits the character, fits the community,” Lewis said.
Carter said he does not support increasing the sphere of influence for more development, adding that the city would need the look at how any projects would affect traffic, water needs and more.
“I think we need to focus on our current vacant buildings and current vacation lots,” Carter said.
Public safety, especially for pedestrians, also was a key concern among the council candidates for the city where people crossing Highway 246 have been critically injured or killed altering being struck by vehicles.
Sierra said she originally ran for the public office because of concerns about Highway 246, which splits the city with parks on one side of the highway and schools on the other.
Efforts have led to the installation of crosswalks with flashing lights, but that has not removed the danger.
Buellton leaders are working with state and regional authorities to narrow Highway 246 to slow traffic within the city, Sierra said.
“We think that’s going to make a huge difference for our community,” she added.
Oltmans said he does not consider Highway 246 a safe road.
“Crossing (Highway) 246 is an issue, and any way to slow down traffic — narrowing lanes — would probably help, but definitely more of a police presence there during times of going to school, after school or whatever activities are happening,” said Oltmans, a newcomer to Buellton politics.
Mercado said Buellton’s efforts to improve safety have been hampered by funding, including at the state level, in many cases.
“We’re doing the things that I think are helping both sides of Buellton,” added Mercado, a former planning commissioner who was appointed to fill a vacancy on the council in 2017 and elected to a rare two-year term in 2018.
Lewis said health and safety should be the top priorities of the council members, and ticked off Safe Routes to School, public trails and neighborhood watch programs among needs.
“The more invested our residents are in their community, the more resilient, the happier and the better their quality of life is all the way around, from our seniors down to our youngest kids,” she said.
Lewis serves on the Buellton Union School District board and is running for re-election. If she wins both seats, the city attorney has said she would have to choose one.
Carter, a newer resident to the valley, said he believes the council has been doing a good job of improving safety, but said the council must remain persistent to ensure that projects get done.
“If I was king for a day, I would make 246 a two-lane road instead of a four-lane highway right through Buellton,” he said. “It’s dangerous to cross even for an adult like me. I can’t imagine kids crossing that road to go to school. So it’s really just about persistence.”
The forums can be found on the Santa Ynez Valley Star’s YouTube channel.