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Atascadero staffers claim pressure from leaders 

A developer and two City Council candidates face allegations from city workers

Bob Kelley, an Atascadero planning commissioner and local Realtor, and Robert "Grigger" Jones, a local attorney, are being talked about and not just because they're both City Council candidates.

click to enlarge MAN WITH A PLAN :  Atascadero developer Kelly Gearhart has said that lies are circulating about issues relating to his condo project and two City Council candidates. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • MAN WITH A PLAN : Atascadero developer Kelly Gearhart has said that lies are circulating about issues relating to his condo project and two City Council candidates.

# Allegations have surfaced recently in the form of a stack of official documents on file with the city.

The city staff members making the accusations say that Kelley and Jones asked them to waive regulations and allow a developer to pave over open space on his development behind the backs of the Planning Commission, according to a project plan file that includes 38 pages of e-mails, amendments, memos, project reviews, and staff reports.

Members of the Atascadero Planning Commission said that Kelly Gearhart constructed a driveway and added parking spaces to a development of his in violation of the project's conditions of approval. Several city staff members said that, earlier this summer, while performing a review of Gearhart's Tecorida Condos, they discovered an unapproved elimination of open space in favor of asphalt.

In response, Joe Chouinard of the Public Works Department ordered Gearhart to tear out the driveway and transform the area back to a park-like setting, according to the project review.

In an e-mail from Gearhart Development to Atascadero's Department of Community Development, dated Aug. 24, the developer requested that city staff sign off on the changes, as "the access driveway has already been installed per city standards at this location."

Public Works Director Steve Kahn, Community Development Director Warren Frace, and Community Development Deputy Director Steve McHarris agreed to meet with Gearhart to deliberate the fate of the driveway. They arrived at the building site on Aug. 26 to find Gearhart accompanied by Jones and Kelley, according to statements in the project file.

"It's lies. It's all lies," Gearhart said in response to allegations that Jones and Kelley had a behind-the-scenes meeting to pressure staff in the developer's favor. He said he would elaborate, but has since been unavailable for comment.

Kelley didn't respond to requests for comments or responses to the allegations.

"I found Planning Commissioner Bob Kelley and Attorney Grigger Jones both of which are documented City Council candidates in attendance at the [Aug. 26] meeting, both of which pressured staff to not only support Gearhart's request, but to waive the planning commission authority over this change," McHarris wrote in an e-mail to Frace on Aug. 29. "Gearhart said 'it was his property and he could build whatever he wants without any permission from anyone.'

"The point of this e-mail is to remind you (and maybe myself) that City staff does favor Mr. Gearhart and routinely changes policy, skirts the code, allows building without permit, and provides service and preferential treatment that no other developers receive ... This is completely opposite of what the City Council has requested of staff," McHarris wrote in that same e-mail. "My position remains firm that staff should present a staff report not influenced by the events of today's meeting."

Jones did not respond to numerous phone requests for an interview, but provided a statement via e-mail on Oct. 11.

"I read the e-mail created by Steve McHarris Sr. Planner for the

click to enlarge PAVE THE WAY :  Atascadero city staff members are asserting that unapproved changes to developer Kelly Gearharts property have led to pressure from current City Council candidates. - PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PHOTO BY JESSE ACOSTA
  • PAVE THE WAY : Atascadero city staff members are asserting that unapproved changes to developer Kelly Gearharts property have led to pressure from current City Council candidates.
# City of Atascadero, who made a conclusionary statement about influencing City Staff," Jones wrote. "That is the only mention of my name in his e-mail. I was invited (as a City Council candidate) to observe a planning issue by a developer on his site. I did so. Present was Warren Frace, community development director, Steve Kahn, public works director, and Steve McHarris. I observed a vocal dispute between the developer and Mr. McHarris. I further observed Warren Frace state that the developer's suggestion as to a change in access to the site would be recommended to the Planning Commission at its next meeting. That is all that I observed taking place. And all the parties left after a few minutes."

Community Development Director Frace was unavailable for comment as of press time, however the staff recommendation to the Planning Commission on Sept. 19 reads, "either adopt the resolution or deny the request," according to Community Development Department staff.

The project file contains allegations that Kelley insisted Kahn, Frace, and McHarris approve Gearhart's request and that, in light of McHarris' refusal to permit the driveway to remain, Gearhart "berated" the city employee.

An Aug. 30 document shows that Gearhart responded to the plan check order to tear out the driveway with an amendment that reads: "Access issue addressed with Steve McHarris, Warren Frace, and Steve Kahn. Driveway to remain."

Upon discovery of the amendment and the implication that he had approved the driveway, McHarris attached a memo of his own to Gearhart's amendment: "This memo is being placed in the file record to remove Steve McHarris from any reference of project approval regarding the August 26 meeting, in which Planning Commissioner Bob Kelley and Attorney Grigger Jones attended with Kelley Gearhart present and on his behalf. To date, my position remains firm that staff should present a staff report not influenced by the events of this meeting or the attached Gearhart memo."

On Sept. 19, Gearhart asked the Planning Commission to allow the driveway to remain. He was denied in a 3-to-2 vote.

"It makes a mockery of the planning process when you go through the processes and meet city standards and then the developer ignores the plans," said Planning Commissioner Joan O'Keefe, who voted against the approval. "Gearhart was allowed higher density in exchange for providing a public benefit. The public benefit on Gearhart's property was the open space. He agreed to it at the time. It feels to me like he is thumbing his nose at the planning process."

Planning commissioners Ellen Beraud (also a City Council candidate) and Roberta Fonzi also voted against the approval.

Kelley voted in favor of the approval, as did Planning Commissioner Greg Porter, who was unavailable for comment.

Gearhart then appealed to the City Council, but has yet to be heard.

Staff Writer Karen Velie can be reached at kvelie@newtimesslo.com.

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