Imagine a company that wants to build a polluting factory, and local residents who don’t want to breathe polluted air. The company argues that if it can’t build the factory, it needs to be compensated for all the money it imagines it would have made. Local politicians urge everyone to “be reasonable.” Eventually a compromise is reached where the pollution emitted is reduced from what it might have been but is still worse than before the factory was built.

Five years down the road, the company says it is losing money, and if the pollution control regulations are not loosened by 40 percent, it will need to shut down, hurting the local economy. The residents don’t want the air to get even worse, so the politicians broker a deal where the regulations are loosened by “only” 20 percent. That is the only “reasonable” path to take. After all, compromise is key to a democratic society.

A few years later, the factory proposes to expand which, of course, will increase its pollution. More compromises, more reasonableness, more pollution… more asthma, more COPD, more lung cancer.

The company agreed to the original requirements when it first built its factory. These requirements were the result of negotiations between the company and the community. On behalf of the community, the politicians balanced the expected economic benefits of the new factory with the air pollution that would impact the health of members of the community. But later the company wanted more, and that “more” came at the expense of others.

This type of situation is avoidable. The key is for all of us to take responsibility for our community and to ensure our political leaders act in our best interest rather than always taking the easy path of “being reasonable” and “splitting the difference.”

Today’s Carpinteria is the result of people taking several “unreasonable” positions over its history. The public owns the Carpinteria Bluffs even though it was crazy to imagine the necessary funds could be raised in the short time available. The city’s urban limit remains compact surrounded by viable agriculture thanks to politicians who made decisions based on sound planning and what was best for the community, despite pressure to do otherwise. We have no oil drilling on our bluffs because the community refused to allow it, most recently by soundly rejecting Measure J in 2010. As a result of these and many other decisions over the years, Carpinteria continues to be a small beach town with exceptional environmental features as well as a healthy economy.

Looking ahead, the progress the city is making on its General Plan update is encouraging. Our current General Plan includes good planning guidelines and environmental protections, and so far, the update looks to be maintaining and even improving those standards.

For example, to help preserve natural creek corridors and riparian habitat, the update proposes to maintain the existing General Plan requirement of a minimum setback of 50 feet from the top of the upper bank or riparian vegetation. A larger distance would provide more protection. But with everyone “being reasonable,” the compromise was made for 50 feet.

Once this plan update is adopted, I fully expect there will eventually be a development proposal that “requires” less than 50 feet of creek setback for some reason. During the debate, there will be a call for everyone to “be reasonable” and allow some decrease in the setback. After all, compromise is key to a democratic society. (Interestingly, it is unlikely that environmental advocates would even bother suggesting an increase in creek setback since that would be more than currently required based on the original compromise.)

To achieve a future that is best for the people of Carpinteria, we need to hold tight to our principles as a community. If the compromises already built into the General Plan are challenged to allow someone to make the money they imagine they could, the community must take another “unreasonable” position that the compromises already made are all that will be made. We must demand our political leaders stand firm and not “split the difference.” Otherwise the Carpinteria we know will suffer an inevitable death by a thousand cuts.

It is in our power to do this. But it requires our attention, our participation, and our willingness to be unreasonable.

Mike Wondolowski is president of the Carpinteria Valley Association (, a local organization dedicated to maintaining the small beach town nature of our community. In his 25 years of involvement in planning issues, he has witnessed visionary successes, as well as decisions that were later widely regretted. When not stuck indoors, he can often be found enjoying Carpinteria’s treasures including kayaking and snorkeling along the coast, running or hiking on the bluffs, or “vacationing” as a tent camper at the State Beach.

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