By Victoria Martinez

Public concerns about an annexation and “sphere of influence” study led the Solvang City Council to abandon the study altogether Feb. 26.

The council had been asked to review the study thus far and give further direction to city staff and the consultants completing the study, while also taking into account the Planning Commission’s Feb. 5 recommendation to delay further steps until public workshops could be held.

During the council meeting, LAFCO Executive Director Paul Hood shared an overview of the annexation process and timeline before David Foote from Firma, the firm conducting the study, went over the study thus far, including the four land-use scenarios provided for discussion purposes and to explain the need for council direction as to which scenarios to study for fiscal impact.

What was known as the Western Study Area consisted of 11 parcels just west of the city limits, totaling about 295 acres and made up of mostly agriculture land with some commercial and industrial zoning. The Northeast Study Area consisted of four agricultural parcels near Alamo Pintado Road totaling approximately 88 acres that are east, north and west of Sunny Fields Park.

For annexation to be completed, the land’s zoning would have needed to change in some fashion. Suggested options included types of residential, commercial and recreational uses.

Solvang Planning and Economic Development Directory Holly Owen clarified that the purpose of the study was to gather information with a financial focus and that regardless of how the City Council decided to proceed, any process going forward would be a lengthy one due to necessary procedures, studies, approvals, and funding.

“This is a long way off, if ever,” Owen said.

Owen also mentioned that there could be unknown impacts from the county’s commercial cannabis ordinance that will allow a variety of cannabis activities in areas zoned AG-1 and AG-2.

She stated that all the areas being evaluated in the study fell under these zoning categories, and there were many unanswered questions as to what the new ordinance would mean in relation to the areas surrounding Solvang, suggesting such unknowns may be another reason for moving forward with understanding the fiscal impacts of the study areas.

However, council members and residents stated that not enough was known about it to consider this new ordinance as a reason to continue the study.

“In this role it is always a challenge to communicate information clearly and in a timely manner, and there is always something else ‘going on’ that one should be aware of, like the cannabis cultivation ordinance at the county level, a good example,” Owen said after the meeting.

More than a dozen people spoke during the meeting, the majority of whom shared their concerns over Solvang growing in one or more of the ways suggested in the study and the little impact that public input would have if annexation of any of the suggested areas were to come to fruition.

“Bigger is not always better,” resident Lansing Duncan said.

Representatives from the community group Save Our Solvang presented the council with signatures from 687 people opposing any increase to Solvang’s size.

“Residents want a vote,” said group representative Susan Belloni.

Supporters of continuing the study in some fashion stated that gathering the information was important because growth would come to the areas around Solvang in the future.

“Land will be developed,” said former council member Hans Duus.

Once the issue returned to the council members for discussion, there was little consensus as to how they should move forward.

“We have quite a situation here,” Councilwoman Karen Waite said. “I really think the city of Solvang has to think down the road here.”

Waite went on to suggest that the council approve moving forward with the fiscal analysis of the Western Study Area already within Solvang’s sphere of influence.

Councilman Ryan Toussaint said that while he is neither pro nor anti-development, he agreed with Waite’s suggestion.

“I’m willing to support smart redevelopment,” Toussaint explained.

Councilwoman Joan Jamieson said she was not happy with the study thus far, but saw value in studying the same area Waite and Toussaint were interested in examining further.

“I’m not happy with this report at all,” Jamieson said. “I feel responsible for it all because I encouraged it.”

Councilman Neill Zimmerman said he felt as though this type of decision should not be made by a council of five members, and he would like to see power distributed back to the people of Solvang.

Mayor Jim Richardson was interested in the community visioning workshops suggested by the Planning Commission, though Owen explained that such a process would have to be part of a bigger plan to review and revise a portion of the city’s general plan, a process that would take years and a commitment of funds.

After much debate, the council voted 5-0 to abandon the study altogether and thanked those in attendance for speaking up and participating in the process.

Representatives for Save Our Solvang were satisfied with the council’s decision.

“We are obviously pleased with the City Council’s decision last night.  It was definitely the result for which we were hoping,” group representative Susan Bott said the next day. “All along we have been looking at other options available in guiding Solvang’s future, with the hope of maintaining the rural character as well as solving existing problems such as traffic, water, etc.”

The group plans on continuing to study ways for Solvang residents to have a say in future Solvang growth, such as creating an urban growth boundary.

“We feel Save Our Solvang can still serve a purpose,” Bott added.

When asked about her reaction to the council’s decision, Owen said that the political process worked, even if the result was not necessarily an expected one.

“The political process can be drawn out and the results unpredictable. My task is to take council direction, research the pertinent issues to the best of my ability, and present council with results and options. I believe that was accomplished last night,” Owen said.