SLO County planning priorities reconsidered

February 21, 2017

T. Keith Gurnee


Today, Feb. 21, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will hear yet another report on “planning priorities” from its Planning Director James Bergman. Back in Oct. 2015, I had written the piece outlined below regarding a similar report to the board nearly a year and a half ago. After reading it again, I concluded that it was timelier than ever.

While the report to be presented today has some “good” in it, it falls way short of what it could have been. While I plan on attending and speaking on this item later today, I also plan to update this article based on the directions the Board might take in considering and acting upon this report. Stay tuned…

SLO County planning: Wherefore art thou?

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 for change impinging upon their communities, to craft a vision to guide those pressures in the form of a General Plan, to devise a road map on how to get there, and to facilitate the achievement of that vision through capital improvement programs, permitting, and public engagement.

Looking back over a 40 year professional career in planning and urban design, I was excited by the future and what “planning” had to offer. I saw it as an aspirational venture to 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 two 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 expressed my concerns with the directions the department had been heading, ,Bergman seems open and ready to meet the challenges he faces.

The big question is can he avoid becoming mired in the long-standing “culture of denial” that has infused the department for so many years. We are about to find out.

With the County Board of Supervisors scheduled to consider the establishment of new priorities for its planning and building department on Oct. 13, 2015, it will be interesting to see what Bergman recommends. Hopefully his recommendations will be bold and transformative, provided he hasn’t  gotten sucked into the vortex of negativity so carefully cultivated in the Department since the 1990s.

It’s time we have a dialogue about what planning and the department has become and make some significant mid-course adjustments to the department’s roles, responsibilities, and attitudes. While Bergman faces a divided Board of Supervisors, I think most of the board would welcome those adjustments should he propose them.

Nonetheless, Bergman faces 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 a tangled 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.

·         The flexibility of the LUE/LUO to adjust to change is missing in action. Its hyper specific, rigid provisions require the equivalent of an act of Congress 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 an overhaul.

·         The county’s increasingly restrictive administration of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reveals a biased, overwrought approach that is some cases is at odds with state law.

·         Some county planning staff have nurtured the increasing phenomenon of NIMBYism that pervades  nearly every public decision today.

·         County staff’s attack on agricultural clustering, the most powerful open-space preservation tool in the county’s arsenal, is troubling at best.

·         The SLO County Counsel’s office has elbowed itself into a stronger and competing role that is often at cross purposes with good planning.

·         Ask anyone who has been through a county permit process and you will hear what a nightmare that process is. Applicants often pay exorbitant fees only to fund the department 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 its present course, the “planning department” should be called the “preventing department”.

Not all of this is the SLO  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 government decision-making, the judicial activism of CEQA court decisions, and the top-down mandates and edicts of state government have all conspired to make real “planning” more difficult.

Yet the San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department remains in dire need of a fundamental overhaul of its purpose, its processes, and its attitudes. Hopefully Bergman sees this and advances 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 October 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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Agree with the article but fear a revision of planning standards will be even more NIMBY driven. NIMBY gripes, real and alleged, get put into another unenforceable planning ordinance that property owners then ignore. The system is dysfunctional, a travesty on real planning.

There are several problems with the planning department.

1. People are hired and stay forever. They have little to no experience in other jurisdictions.

2. Many of the staff have never worked in private practice so they do not realize how finances, project construction, etc. work.

3. The department only seems to hire Cal Poly students. Cal Poly’s city and regional planning department has a certain perspective so all students come out as robots with the same direction. How about hiring people from well-known universities, such as UCLA?

4. The county hires the same planning consultants over and over and over. We get the same tired ideas that reflect a planning staff out of touch with the world.

Time to not only start working on planning documents, but overhaul staff and bring in people from outside this area with fresh ideas.

I would caution bringing fresh new ideas, resisting change has made for better planning and why many live here. Sadly many of us can remember when while standing like that American Indian, with a tear falling from his eye, as he looks at what has happened.

Comment #2 is a very important part of the problem. If you have ever worked with any planning or building project, I have done numerous, there is a significant difference with how the project is perceived and processed. Employees from the private sector realize that time is money and like the srticle mentions will usually try to proceed as efficiently as possible to a positive conclusion.

Whereas the graduates of CalPoly, or other Universities, usually have never had a job where they were answerable to positively perform for a positive conclusion. Different minds with different ideas to solve problems instead of creating them should be the goal of departments. Unfortunately very few are rewarded in government for being efficient because that could possibly reduce their budgets and possibly eliminate positions of employment.

Planning and executing a building permit are different in my book. I see Planning as approving the appropriate template for the future and the permit process about compliance within laws, engineering and that template.

I was commenting on the process. Yes different applications for sure but usually the same mindset of staff.