SLO County planning: Wherefore art thou?
September 22, 2015
OPINION By 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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