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Planners rule

Go ahead and nod off while the planners plan, because that’s just what they want you to do, right?

‘Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.’

–Baseball catcher Yogi Berra

BY DANIEL BLACKBURN

In a recent bold–or bald–move, planners in San Luis Obispo decided to make a few discreet and momentous changes to the city’s general plan, gutting language that provided some of the document’s strongest municipal environmental shields.

Land-use regulations were stripped away. Key wording of critical passages had been neutralized. In short, environmental protection guarantees were suddenly missing.

For some residents, this was the nefarious equivalent of trying to clear-cut a stand of ancient redwoods in the dead of night.

It might have been an example of invisible planners running amok over the wishes of the citizenry, of the exercise of virtually unlimited power over a prostrate populace, of arrogance and exclusionary government.

Or, it could have been something far less sinister. Either way, it was a significantly important issue that easily could have translated into surprise statute–difficult to regurgitate, even more difficult to live with.

That sort of thing tends to make some people nervous.

San Luis Obispo’s planning staff, directed by the city council to update the "conservation element" of the general plan, had responded with an initial draft that initially blindsided, and then outraged, a retinue of citizens who were keeping close watch over the unfolding process.

Watch, that is, as well as anyone in the public sector could, having been denied any opportunity to participate in preparing the draft.

When the revised general plan and its eviscerated conservation element appeared before the planning commission several weeks ago for approval, an opposing front materialized, ready for war.

James Caruso is a San Luis Obispo County planner who uniquely holds an appointive post on the San Luis Obispo City Planning Commission. He said that as a commissioner he looked with skepticism on the staff’s proposal.

"Boy," he said, "rewriting the conservation element and taking bits and pieces of the land-use element out of the general plan ... that was a major, major job. I think most of [the commission] thought we should have been more involved. There should have been less from staff and more from the citizens."

City planners, in taking the ax to the conservation element of the general plan, "forgot a few steps along the way," said Caruso. "Mainly, they forgot that they have a rather activist planning commission now, one that wants a lot of information and wants to be deeply involved, at least in the important things like the general plan."

SLO planners might have also forgotten these words of Alexander Hamilton, spoken 200 years ago: "Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike."

Caruso said he had heard "all the charges" about secrecy, and of planning staff members lobbying policy makers to speed the environmentally neutered plan toward fruition.

"I come from a different perspective," he noted. "I don’t see conspiracy. Instead, what I see is bureaucratic behavior. Bureaucracies all behave in the same way, and there is nothing underhanded or secretive or conspiratorial about it–it’s just that’s the way bureaucracies behave. They were given a task to do, and they went ahead and did it."

Dissention regarding the surprise appearance of the altered conservation element mounted by a posse of environmentalists derailed the planning staff’s proposal, at least temporarily. The planning commission approved tabling the measure for more thorough scrutiny by a citizen committee, on a skimpy 5-2 vote, and sent their proposal to the city council.

Without placing the item on a meeting agenda as required by the Brown Act, the council last month bypassed the citizen committee’s involvement in the rewrite of the conservation element and ordered the planning commission to "get moving" with the plan.

Richard Schmidt, a Cal Poly architectural instructor, pointed out in a May 13 letter to the council that the conservation element was not on the meeting agenda, and no notice had been given to the public regarding its discussion.

City Attorney Jonathan Lowell subsequently agreed, informing the council their action violated state law. The panel will reconsider the matter June 1.

Nor are other communities immune from the smoky-backroom– or at least the appearance of it–brand of planning.

Over the past few years, rapidly growing Paso Robles has been the center of several diverse planning issues that have sorely distressed the more attentive of the burg’s denizens–largely because they missed it all happening.

One was a cushy-looking deal cut with multimillionaire David Weyrich at Paso Robles Airport, which gave the businessman a long and fruitful contract and billed city taxpayers for the refurbishing of airport facilities. Accusations of secret maneuvering were leveled at city officials, but the charges fell on deaf ears.

More recently, planners in the North County city drafted a tough ordinance making it nearly impossible to cut down oak trees on private property. That conflict also fostered charges of behind-the-scenes decision-making.

Whatever the eventual outcome of these particular issues, the flaps may have served to bring some often-murky planning processes more clearly into the public eye. Or not.

What are they really up to, these demigods who seem to toy with the fate of we, the people?

The American Planners Association postulates that "the planner’s goal is to help communities and regions grow in harmony with the natural environment and in tune with public concerns."

According to that group’s web site, planners may count among humanity’s finest in the world of civic trust: "Professional planners prepare comprehensive plans for development projects, neighborhoods, cities, states, and regions. They deal with transportation, housing, community facilities, commercial areas, public safety, open space, urban design, and the use of land. And they’re responsible for developing a plan of action to turn their paper plans into reality."

That in itself is enough to rankle some folks, because planning, by its very nature, goes against the grain of the Wild West ethic that helped shape this area not too long ago, when people were freewheeling, rugged individualists with a shared hatred of government meddling.

Planning, in the government definition, ranges from the mundane, as in causing individual citizens to purchase a $100 permit to erect that patio cover, to the esoteric, such as long-range, conceptual community planning like sustainable housing and alternative electrical energy for the masses.

The first example of planning will help shape and define your backyard, and you will be directly involved. The other will help shape and define your entire surroundings, indeed the very ambiance of your life, and it is likely that you will barely notice it happening.

And to many community planners, that’s just ducky.

Planning by its very nature is usually deadly dull, albeit a necessary precedent to many human activities, from vacations to futures. But don’t think for a minute that the more politically hip planners don’t clearly comprehend, beneath their cerebral façade, that a bored public is a disinterested–and therefore exploitable–public. Fewer people involved in a project means less confusion, controversy, and trouble.

Longtime planning commissioner Nick Ferravanti of Paso Robles readily acknowledges the power of planning bureaucracies:

"If I were king, I’d have more control over staff," he said, this from a man who has spent a decade watching, from a citizen’s perspective, planners at work.

"The elected official does not control staff," said Ferravanti. "The staff runs the show." Elected officials, such as city council members, have very limited control over planning department employees, most of whom are civil servants. Ultimately, these hired hands report to the city manager.

Ferravanti demurred: "Well, to some degree, it depends on who is in office. Some elected officials tend to get more involved than others."

He worries about the growing influence of hired-gun private planners and consultants on policy-making.

In many communities statewide, planning departments have shrunk to skeleton staffs who do little more than prepare requests for proposals (RFPs) and search for private planning firms to execute the plans. This "farming out" of municipal projects to private entities widens even further the gap between the public interest and the planning process, often leaving residents out of the loop, in the dark, and in a tizzy.

"I get a little teed off when the city hires consultants every time anyone wants to make a move," said Ferravanti. "There’s a lot of money wasted on consultants. But I guess hiring consultants makes not only the staff, but the council, feel they have someone professional saying, ‘This is how to do it.’"

The push-pull between staff and the policy-makers can be intense at times, said Ferravanti. "Sometimes staff gets teed off at me, if I’ll do something that makes them feel that I’ve tried to pull the rug from underneath [their project]."

Ferravanti believes the solution to keeping a planning entity under control is for the public to stay involved.

And that public attention does not always sit well with planners.

"Some days," said Kelly Heffernon, assistant community development director of Arroyo Grande, "you want to say if it wasn’t for the public, this job would be fun. But really, people in my business want to make an impact. There’s a certain social impact to the job. I’m challenged [in working with the pubic] on some days more than others, however. A warped sense of humor helps survival."

Humor? In a planner?

Planners are not generally a gregarious breed. For a planner working on a public project, an ideal sequence of events might be this: (1) plan drawn; (2) peaceful public hearing; (3) approval; and (4) project completed. No complications.

But since life doesn’t usually work that way, many planners tend to work in splendid isolation, away from the irritating buzz of public input, leaving the public relations to their superiors. So often, though, these shadowy personalities’ influence on the daily lives of people in the community can be tremendous.

Planners in the village of Arroyo Grande felt the sting of public reaction four years ago when Wal-Mart executives announced their desire to build a superstore in town. The planning process was awash in angry rumors of underhanded dealings and back-room decisions, and neighborhoods were pitted in conflict over easy shopping versus community aesthetics.

"It wasn’t a pleasant time for the city," said Heffernon. "I wasn’t here when it happened, but Wal-Mart was the project from down below. It was very controversial.

"A lot of heads rolled," she said of the city’s planning staff of the time. "People just kind of went away, a combination of being fed up with working here, and unhappiness [of residents] with people working here."

Planning issues can cut to the core of an individual’s conscience. Often intrusive, always demanding, and usually creating additional financial obligations for individuals, the process of planning is neither black nor white, good nor evil. It simply has become an arguably necessary function of social interaction. And as California’s population multiplies, planning will become more intense. At least, that’s how planners view the future.

The state will grow by 12 million during the next 16 years, according to predictions. That portends huge problems in securing adequate water and electrical energy for homes, farms, and industries. It also includes the need for thousands of new housing structures, most of which will be built within or alongside existing communities.

"California is growing faster than any other state in the nation," said Jeff Lambert, president of the American Planning Association’s California chapter. "In 2015, an estimated 42.7 million people will call California home. It’s not growth that California needs to fear, but ‘dumb growth.’ Or else we’ll see a loss of open space and farmland, greater traffic congestion, greater air and water pollution, and cookie-cutter subdivisions."

While local planning may be bothersome to some, regional planning–or the lack of it–can be problematic, too. Even as more people pour into the state, the infrastructure is crumbling faster than it can be repaired.

In his syndicated column, Dan Walters of The Sacramento Bee recently wrote, "Ironically, the screeching halt in infrastructure investment came just as California was beginning a new growth spurt, which has increased the state’s population by about 50 percent over the last quarter-century. It’s a classic demand-supply squeeze, with the resultant congested highways, overcrowded and deteriorating schools, water shortages and other unpleasant facts of contemporary California."

As life gets more complicated, planning of our lives by others will intensify. The only answer to this perplexing and disturbing situation, said Paso Robles’ Ferravanti, is to stay involved.

"Keep an eye on ’em," he chuckled.

And finally, if all else fails, remember the immortal words of Alan Bond, a San Luis Obispo City Council member in the late 1970s and now a private investigator: "City planning is an oxymoron." Æ

News Editor Daniel Blackburn can be reached at dblackburn@newtimesslo.com.




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