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Tipline Investigation: Cabana Controversy

A 6 year fight over a local historic landmark could spell trouble for other treasured landmarks.

NewsChannel 3 investigates why some Santa Barbara County officials want to tear down historic landmark #49.

The Irene and Frances Rich cabana is perched on a pristine beach bluff in Hope Ranch. Cabanas like this, once dotted the California coastline. Most are gone now.

The cabana was built in 1956 by actress Irene Rich, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1920’s and 30’s. But, Rich had help from Santa Barbara’s most influential residents of the time.

“We have Pearl Chase coming here as their friend and doing landscaping. And people like Harold Chase who acquired the land to even put this here,” said Lee Carr the current owner of the cabana.

Over the years, Hollywood elite like Steve McQueen, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, artist Diego Rivera and racing legend Enzo Ferrari vacationed here, just to name a few.

But, all of that history may not be enough to save it.

“We’ve been caught in a lot of catch 22’s. When we bought the property, a man had done repairs without a permit causing the building to go into violation status which is in effect to today,” said Julia Carr who bought the property 6 years ago with her husband.

The Carr’s said that mistake by a previous owner could doom this piece of history forever. Some county officials now believe that violation, although minor, is reason enough to move the cabana off the bluff or simply tear it down.

One of those officials is Glenn Russell, Director of Santa Barbara County’s Planning and Development Department. Russell declined to talk on camera for this story, but he did tell me over the phone, that he has to balance two policies. One that applies to historic landmarks and another policy that applies to a building that’s not only in violation, but doesn’t meet current building codes.

“So there’s a conflict. Even though we may want to comply with the rules, we can’t comply with rules on one side that say one thing and rules on the other side that say another thing,” said Lee Carr as he described his frustration with the whole mess.

One example, is the railing height on the deck. The railing was originally built to a height of 36 inches. If the Carr’s raise it to 42 inches as the county wants, the Carr’s would violate the Historic Building Code. If they don’t do anything and leave the railing at 36 inches, the Carr’s would be violating the current building code. The Carr’s are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

“My frustrations are with the system, where it appears no one understands the system, including me. It’s really impenetrable. It’s confusing and it’s contradictory,” said Lee Carr.

Some people wonder what all of this means for the county’s other 48 historic landmark’s. Will they be held to the same standard’s as the Rich Cabana?

John Woodward, former Chair of the County Historic Landmark Commission said it’s as if some county officials are declaring war on all historic landmarks.

“They haven’t said they won’t apply it to every landmark. But common sense tells you when there’s broad discretion like that without a lot of objective basis for it that it can be applied to every landmark and the reality is, almost every historic building by its very nature is old and it’s had many changes, most of them minor over the years,” said Woodward.

As for the Carr’s, they said they’ve spent an unbelievable amount of money
over the last six years on geological studies, engineers and attorney’s to show the cabana is in excellent condition and safe. All they want from the county is a permit that essentially forgives the mistakes of the past and let’s them maintain this historic cabana so it survives another 60-years.

“The compromise will come by someone stepping forward and making a decision, rather than postponing decisions, rather than setting up obstacles to avoid making decisions,” said Lee Carr.

“We’re hoping in our lifetime that we can get this resolved,” said Julia Carr with a nervous smile.

If not, the sea and time will decide the cabana’s fate.

Glenn Russell, the county official who is recommending the cabana be removed, also believes it’s an overstatement to say that this case will have any impact on the other historic landmarks because every situation is different.

A hearing is set for the beginning of December. We’ll let you know what happens.

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