SLO County planning: Wherefore art thou?

September 22, 2015
T. Keith Gurnee

T. Keith Gurnee


By T. Keith Gurnee

Planning for the future is an essential activity of human endeavor. Whether and how we “plan” for our families, our careers, our retirement, the growth of a business, or the future growth of our communities, all have a direct correlation with the quality, sustainability, and success of our lives.

Back in the 1960s and 70s, it was the role of local planning departments to analyze and understand the future pressures impinging upon their communities, to craft a creative vision to guide those pressures in the form of a General Plan, to develop a road map on how to get there over time, and to facilitate the achievement of that vision with capital improvement programs, permit processing, and public engagement.

Looking back at a 40 year professional career in land use planning and urban design, I started out excited by the future and what “planning” had to offer. I saw it as an inspirational venture to creatively make our communities better places for present and future generations to enjoy. Yet gradually over the years, planning seems to have lost its way, and nowhere is that more evident than in the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department.

It has been nearly 2 years since James Bergman came on as the county’s director of planning and building. In taking on the challenge of managing the department, he has made some significant headway in reorganizing the agency and the infusion of younger talent replacing retirees is a promising development. Having met with him to express my concerns with the directions the department had been taking in recent years, he seems open and ready to meet the challenges he faces. The big question is will he avoid becoming mired in the long-standing “culture of denial” that has plagued the department for so many years. We are about to find out.

With the SLO County Board of Supervisors scheduled to consider the establishment of new priorities for its planning and building department on Oct. 13, it will be interesting to see what Bergman recommends as priorities for his department.

Hopefully his recommendations will be bold and transformative, if he has not already gotten sucked into the vortex of negativity so carefully cultivated in the department since the 1990s. Indeed, it is time to have a dialogue about what the Department has become and to make some significant mid-course adjustments to its role, its responsibilities, and its attitudes. While he faces a divided board of supervisors, I think most of the board members would welcome those adjustments if Bergman proposes them.

Nonetheless, it will be a tall order given this smidgen of what he’s knowingly confronting:

  • The current General Plan known as the Land Use Element/Land Use Ordinance (LUE/LUO) is an absolute mess. After submitting a Public Records Act request in 2013 for all documents used to interpret consistency of development applications with the County’s General Plan, I received a mountain of documents totaling over 17,000 pages.
  • Rather than a clear guide to the county’s future, the LUE/LUO is a Gordian knot of regulations, conflicting provisions, and layered policies that defy comprehension while necessitating an army of tax consuming bureaucrats to administer.
  • Rather than a vision for the future, the LUE/LUO is a black hole of rules and procedures from which no light escapes and that is utterly devoid of vision.
  • Rather than a flexible document that can adjust to change, its hyper specific and rigid provisions require a General Plan Amendment to meet changing circumstances.
  • Originally adopted in the early 1980s, it has not been comprehensively updated for well over 30 years and is long overdue for a comprehensive overhaul.
  • The county’s overzealous administration of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) has revealed itself to be a biased, expensive, and in some cases inconsistent process with state law.
  • In some cases, county planning staff has nurtured the increasingly pervasive phenomenon of NIMBYism that is impinging on just about every local government decision in today’s world.
  • County staff’s ongoing attack on agricultural clustering, the most powerful open-space preservation tool in the county’s arsenal that has been used to preserve over 10,000 acres of permanent open space, has been troubling at best.
  • Anyone who has had to go through a county permit process knows what a nightmare that process is. Too often, applicants essentially pay the county thousands of dollars only to have the department spend that money to fight their applications.
  • Rather than using the permit and CEQA review process to make projects better and find a way to get to “yes,” county staff seems relegated to the position of finding 1000 ways to say “no.”
  • Instead of vision we have regulation. Instead of creative problem solving, we have overwrought problem finding. If the department stays as it is, instead of calling it the “planning department,” we should be calling it the “preventing department.”

Now not all of this is the county planning department’s fault. There are a number of contributing factors that have added complexity to local government planning throughout California. The constant flux of changes in California’s planning laws, the rise of NIMBYism that has come to dominate today’s government decision-making, the judicial activism of CEQA court decisions, and the top-down edicts of our state government have all conspired to make real “planning” more difficult.

Yes, the San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department is in dire need of a fundamental overhaul of its purpose, its processes, and its attitudes. Hopefully Bergman can see that and comes forth with recommendations to get his department back on track with what it should be doing rather than what it has been accustomed to doing. The Board of Supervisors meeting on Oct. 13 promises to be an interesting one indeed.

T. Keith Gurnee is a local planning and urban design consultant who recently completed his term as President of the California Planning Roundtable, a statewide think tank comprised of seasoned professional planners from both the public and private sectors who are charged with advancing the planning profession throughout the state of California.

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Obviously those who have commented on this article have not actually tried to build a new home for themselves, get a building permit for their property, or put up a fence (yes, there are places in the county that require Planning Dept approval to just put up a fence). I can only assume they are the NIMBY crowd that is threatened when other people exercise their rights and liberty but when it comes to themselves they are always so extra special.

Look in the mirror before you condemn others because one day you will be that other person.

Gurnee’s comments are right on. Building anything in this county is a crap shoot.

Ultimately everyone in the county is a loser. Old buildings don’t get repaired because the cost and problems to get the permits for change is to high, As an example, just look at the unincorporated coastal areas where it looks just like it did 50 years ago. That is not an accident. It is intentional!


California suffers from some kind of myth that once things are built, you should not tear them down. And In the east, they’ll bulldoze right over ocean if they could. You look at Shell beach. What a nice setting, with nice homes. But the dilapidated gas stations, old motels, and former shacks would almost lead one to think you’d better not venture out after dark. The limiting of development is fine, however, you have to somehow maintain exclusivity, and dilapidated things tend to not be exclusive.

All the trailer parks and former lotto stores from 1960 be warned. If SLO goes upscale, you’re toast.


Mr. Gurnee your opinion piece is only generalities. Please give some specific examples to back up what you say.


This is precious — the premier pusher-through of developments people don’t want complaining about a culture of “no!” How absurd. Musta applied for something that got turned down. This definitely is not a public interest argument.


Isn’t Gurnee trying to absolutely change the plan for Leticia winery?


Too bad Mr. Gurnee decided to publish his remarks in CCN….now it will never see the light of day in the Tribune or anywhere else. No offense to CCN but only but a few good

breakthrough articles show up anywhere else.

No question Gurnee is a developer first and foremost like his buddy Rossi; if it were up to them there wouldn’t be much open space anywhere. It’s still a good article and high- lights the failings of our county government….no argument there!!

Francesca Bolognini

Interestingly, I am finding just about the opposite situation to what is being presented here. But I live in Cambria. I would hardly call the application of CEQA “overzealous” here, where it was completely IGNORED during the County’s “approval” of the currently inoperable/unusable desal/toilet to tap/aquifer suckingr unit in San Simeon Creek that we are currently being bankrupted by. Oh, but wait, the county wants to be indemnified for their (Mr. Bergman’s) “approval” of the project.

You would think that a project with so many complications and possibilities to fail with catastrophic consequences to the environment, such as permenent pollution of the aquifer by chemicals or salt water intrusion, destruction of life in the creek (already happening) and pollution of the adjecent San Simeon Camp Ground (estimated value $35,000,000.00) would have merrited at least an enviromental look see.

Or perhaps there could have been a pause for reflection on the advice of Fish and Wildlife, who predicted exactly what would happen, and continue to happen and has happened to life in and around the installation, due to the highly toxic nature of the project. They had long ago suggested we create off stream storage, which would have been sustainable by the way, and our CCSD and the County both, in their infinite wisdom chose to ignore this more environmentally enhancing (Steel Head rehab) and much more affordable alternative. But then, it would only have achieved sustainability, not unlimited growth, like desal that just gets expanded at the expense of the current customers for ongoing “developement”.

Or (long shot here) a look at our actual water levels first, which were, according to the CCSD web site, above average seasonal levels during this dire “emergency”, although that was not what Cambrians were told. Just a thought.

So what I am seeing is indeed a lack of planning, not that obstructs developement, but that facilitates wreckless, environmentally unsound and unsustainable developement. Develpoement at any cost, even if our resources are destroyed in the process.

Cambria relies on tourism to a great extent, people come from far and wide to visit the Castle and to enjoy the beauty and the health of the environment that we have preserved here. We are NOT NIMBYs. We are stewards,and hosts of an area that is appreciated by people from all over the world. They fill our streets, crowd our restaurants and use much of what water we have. We are also part of a Marine Sanctuary that requires special enviromental caution. If someone does not wish to live within these parameters, they should go to one of the many places where such factors are not a consideration. They are really easy to spot. And good luck with that.

If it were not for CEQA, etc. pretty much everywhere would look like Orange County, Compton, or perhaps, for the wealthy, Carmel. The use of the term “planning”, especially by a developer, usually means constant, endless developement.

So yes, I agree that better planning is absolutely in order. We may just disagree on what that plan might be.