Thursday, April 19, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 7

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on June 15th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 15 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 15

Who should pay for public art? A proposed fee that would charge developers to help fund public art in Santa Maria sparks debate among industry and advocates


Paintings of a salsa-dancing duo, monarch butterflies perched on flowers, and a ship sailing under a cloudy sky are all displayed on a unique canvas—utility boxes in downtown Santa Maria. Local artists added their own colorful illustrations to the industrial boxes in April, which are just a few examples of more than 20 public art pieces adorning the city.

Melissa Johnson-Barash was one of the artists commissioned to paint the dull gray utility boxes. As she painted on Easter weekend, motorists honked and waved, she said, and pedestrians stopped to ask her questions and watch her work.

Local artist Diane Smith painted the Santa Maria Harvest mural. The artwork features many of the city’s familiar symbols, including a tractor in a field, strawberries, a couple toasting glasses of wine, and a chef tossing vegetables.

While the passersby celebrated the creativity, public art was a point of contention at a Planning Commission meeting on April 6. The dispute specifically stemmed from the Public Art Master Plan and an accompanying ordinance, which stipulates a 1 percent fee for developers that would fund public art.

“I have no problem with art; I think it’s very important,” Planning Commissioner Tim Seifert said at the meeting. Seifert is also senior vice president of Dan Blough Construction. “We gotta figure out a better way to pay for it. That’s my only concern. I don’t like where the money is coming from, and I don’t agree with it.”

Others with the city and the arts community don’t share Seifert’s concerns. Dennis Smitherman, management analyst for the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, said developers who are building in a community should be asked to give back more than just the building.

The 1 percent development fee that the master plan allocates to fund public art in Santa Maria is much lower than nearby cities like San Luis Obispo, Smitherman said.

“This is typically how it’s done,” he said. “What we’re asking for is a tiny percent to help beautify. If you look at the building fees for Santa Maria as compared to the rest of coast, we fall very much so in the middle.” 

Bringing color to the valley

The Public Art Master Plan was conceived after local residents expressed a desire for more public art such as beautified utility boxes, murals, and even painted fire hydrants, according to Smitherman. With no established public art funding in place, Smitherman enlisted the help of the Santa Maria Arts Council—which represents more than 20 art agencies—to create a vision for public art in the city.

In December 2015, the Arts Council reached out for input from business owners, private citizens, artists, and anyone who had an interest in community art, he said. Multiple edits were made to the master plan, and it was sent to the city attorney’s office.

“Pretty much everyone has seen this, which has been great,” Smitherman said. “We feel like we have a really comprehensive plan that’s general enough to allow for some changes to the course, but specific enough to incorporate more public art in our community.”

The current Public Art Master Plan and ordinance proposes a 1 percent fee on new developments in the city—like the Enos Ranch project on Betteravia—that would supply the city’s public art fund.

The master plan went back for review with the Recreation and Parks Commission last year. Additional edits were made, and the final draft was approved. However, there was still the question of funding, so an ordinance was drafted to solve that problem.

The ordinance would establish a “city arts fund” that would support public art assets and programs. Within the current proposal, 10 percent is allocated toward monitoring compliance and administrative tasks, 50 percent for creating and installing public art itself, 10 percent for maintenance, and 30 percent for art education, annually. The master plan and ordinance was then presented to the Planning Commission in December 2016, and that’s where the debate began.

A diverse cross section “from all walks of life” attended the meeting, Smitherman said, and voiced “overwhelming support for the plan.” Many there agreed that public art is important and the city needs of more of it, he said.

Yet as of mid June, the master plan and ordinance still need Planning Commission approval before the City Council can finalize it.

“I try to explain to people that public art really is the curb appeal for the city. It attracts businesses, potential homeowners, and people from out of the area for tourism,” Smitherman said. “Studies show that for every $1 spent on public art, there’s a $5 return.”

According to the Public Art Master Plan, such art projects provide a greater recognition and appreciation for a city.

Smitherman and other art advocates further explained that public art beautifies shared spaces, increases tourism, and contributes to the economic and cultural health of the city.

“The [master] plan was created to enrich a community with a sense of its history, culture, and heritage, and provide greater recognition and appreciation for a select region of the city in which the art is liberally applied by not only local residents, but becomes a draw for those outside the community,” the Public Art Master Plan said.

Melissa Johnson Barash painted two out of the five newly beautified utility art boxes in downtown Santa Maria. Her pieces feature the life cycle of monarch butterflies among gladiola flowers.

Focusing on nature, blooming and regenerating life, Barash painted the piece to reflect her hopes for the city.

“I think the master plan would bring a better sense of community,” she said, “and I think it gives people connection to each other through the different pieces of art and what that art is going to represent.” 

Developing opposition

While it satisfies art advocates, the way the fund is laid out in the proposed ordinance is not specific enough for everyone.

Laurie Tamura is the president of Urban Planning Concepts, a land use planning firm. Tamura said that the biggest problem with the project is “the whole program.”

“I’m not a fan of mandating art or charging arbitrarily money of every single permit without a clear budget and allocation of how the money is going to be spent,” Tamura said. “There’s not enough information in the plan that’s being proposed by the city.”

The “Spectrum” mural, painted by Wayne Healy in 1989, adds color and dimension to the otherwise plain Betteravia Government Building. Healy is a part of the East Los Streetscapers, a muralist collective and fine art studio, based in Los Angeles.

The ordinance’s a percent-for-art fee remains one of the most controversial aspects of the plan. Developers may pay the fee of 1 percent of their development costs, or they may request city approval for a “public art in-lieu contribution.” The contribution would come in the form of a piece of public art included in the new development, authorized by the Recreation and Parks Commission, that would equal the cost of the 1 percent fee.

Jeff Eckles, executive director of the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast, is against the Public Art Master Plan because he thinks it’ll further worsen the “housing crisis.” If there is an added 1 percent fee for development, he said, it would be more difficult to supply affordable housing for residents.

Eckles said that developers already pay for public assets such as water, roads, or public services, and the percent-for-art fee should be considered “discretionary.” Santa Maria’s housing market has been seen as affordable, he said, but if there are more fees for residential developers, it will impact affordability.

“I read through the master plan, and as a representative of the development community, I was upset that there wasn’t additional outreach in the development community,” he said. “If you look at the stakeholders in the master plan, a majority of them are from the arts community. And while I agree there should be voice from the arts community, there was no outreach to the development community at all from what I know.”

Urban Planning Concepts’ Tamura said there is a lot of confusion about the plan. Most builders, developers, designers, and architects “don’t understand why this is happening.” When there’s a fee added on top of all the taxes that already exist, it discourages developments and improvements being made in the community, she said.

“I think it would be a disservice to the community if it got passed the way it’s currently written. It’d be the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she said. “There’s already a multitude of fees and charges that have to be paid, and this is just one more we don’t need.”

The bronze statue sculpted by Paul Anderson depicts two children—a young girl reading, and a young boy who appears to be sleeping—at the Santa Maria Public Library.

For the arts community, the percent-for-arts fee is seen as a small price for developers to take on, with a large payoff. Craig Shafer, communications manager at the Pacific Conservatory Theatre and former Arts Council president, said that when developers only see the fee as another price to pay, it’s short sighted, because the results will transcend the aesthetic improvements.

Shafer has been immersed in various art programs for most of his life, including his work with the Arts Council. Shafer is also a former Arts Editor for the Sun. From his experiences, he has seen the impact that art can have on students’ success, he said.

“You know, we’ve got a horrible gang problem, let’s face it,” he said. “If kids have something creative to do … art opens up new ideas and it helps people communicate cross-culturally, see things differently, and appreciate differences. It’d just be a big first step in trying to combat some of that, by using art as a weapon.”

There are more than 350 cities in the country that have public art programs, and most of them follow the percent-for-art model, he said. Adopting a program to support public art in Santa Maria isn’t unreasonable, he said.

Artists like Barash don’t understand why there’s opposition to the “art tax” at all, but she speculated that profit factors in. Residents want a beautiful, profitable community, she said, so developers building in the area should take that into account.

“It’s the Chamber of Commerce’s job to create positive and flourishing work and job-creation situations,” Barash said. “If they just let them come in and make a bunch of money and leave without contributing, it’s not fair. And 1 percent is pretty small.” 

Creative compromise

The Public Art Master Plan’s visionaries have taken into account both those who oppose the funding measures and those who favor it but aren’t sure it’ll pass as currently written. Alternatives to the current plan have been considered.

Developers suggested starting a nonprofit organization or volunteer program instead of the percent-for-art fee. Tamura suggested volunteering as a way for community organizations to provide art around the city. Locals already donate to the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs, she explained, so a fundraising or volunteering method would be a solid alternative to the developer’s fee.

Local Artist Matthew Betancourt painted the ship Santa Maria onto a utility box on April 15 and 16 as part of a recent public art beautification project.

Eckles said that funding should come from a “broader-base funding mechanism,” and mentioned the city’s general fund. A big concern over the 1 percent fee is that developers may pass the fee on to new homebuyers.

“I think many developers would donate to a nonprofit. A lot of developers support various nonprofits, so I could see it working, that’s where some of their profits go,” Eckles said. “The voluntary approach would be preferable.”

The arts community has a different vision for a compromise.

Smitherman with Recreation and Parks said the best option may be starting the developer’s fee at 0.5 percent for the first five years, and then gradually increasing it up to 1 percent over time.

While there are discussions between the Planning Commission and the arts community, Smitherman is hesitant to refer to it as “negotiation,” but rather “fine-tuning” the master plan and ordinance to what the community wants.

“According to last year’s numbers, .5 percent would add up to more than $500,000 per year that would go into the public art fund,” Smitherman said. “We can be firm at 1 percent and get nothing, or we can ask for 0.5 percent. It would be a great start, so we’ll take it, right? We’ll take what we can get.”

Mayor Alice Patino was waiting to offer her view of the proposed plan. She won’t read the master plan or ordinance until it comes to her desk, she said, because it will probably get changed by then.

Have your say
The next Planning Commission public hearing to discuss the Public Arts Master Plan will be Wednesday, July 19, at 6:30 p.m. in the City Hall Council Chambers. More info:

Although she attends Planning Commission meetings regularly, she said she acts only as a listener in order to hear what the community has to say.

“I don’t really know what’s going to happen to it, but as long as I have to be a judge on a jury, I don’t really want to comment on it,” Patino said. “All we know is that it’s an idea right now, and we’ll wait to see how it plays out.”

However, not everyone is happy playing the waiting game. After almost two years of deliberating the master plan and ordinance, Shafer with the Arts Council would like to see the details ironed out sooner rather than later.

In his perfect Santa Maria, there would be art up and down the streets, attracting people to the city, Shafer said. The city would have an inviting feel that would make people gravitate toward it, whether they want to visit or buy a house, he said.

“It would’ve been nice if we’d done it 20 years ago, it would’ve been nice if we’d done this five  years ago, but there’s nothing like the present,” Shafer said. “Do it now. Stop lamenting over, ‘We could’ve, we should’ve,’ and just do it now.” 

Intern Emily Holland can be reached through Managing Editor Joe Payne at

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