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So long, Sarah 

Supervisor Jim Patterson intends to ax Planning Commission Chairwoman Sarah Christie.

click to enlarge AXED :  Sarah Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission at the request of Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her five years ago - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • AXED : Sarah Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission at the request of Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her five years ago
Sarah Christie is the type of public official who can rip you to shreds and hold a quizzical look that says, “How did you not see this coming?”

She’s a brutally incisive decision maker who can steer a meeting, sway a vote, and shift opposing political views, using keen reasoning and unparalleled knowledge of local laws.

Maybe it’s because of those very qualities that Christie has become one of the most divisive members of SLO County government. And maybe they account for why, after five years, she’s being forced out of office.

Christie is expected to resign from the SLO County Planning Commission during the Dec. 17 meeting. She’s been perceived by some critics as an extreme, left-biased roadblock and by supporters as one of the best planning commissioners in memory. When she steps down—barring a change of heart by Supervisor Jim Patterson, who appointed her—she may allude to spending time with her family or other such political clichés. Whatever her official explanation may be, Christie is not stepping down by choice.

Throughout her tenure, Christie has been at the forefront in the pitched battles between SLO County’s environmentalists on the left and developers on the right. Despite vigorous campaigns by pro-growth agitators to unseat her, her position has been secure. But somewhere along the line very recently, Patterson turned against her.

About 15 people met with Patterson on Dec. 7 to change his mind: As far as anyone can tell, they failed.

Many political figures self-destruct amid scandals and corruption charges; Christie may meet her demise for no reason other than she’s an expert. “I just think it’s really sad for Sarah personally … just because she’s so smart,” one supporter said. “Just because we have an intelligent woman. And that’s a bad thing?”

Christie is an undeniable pain in the ass to any developer who relies on smooth public relations consultants and slick PowerPoints. Pat Veesart, a former District 3 planning commissioner, thinks “it’s always been an unlevel playing field” in the world of county development. Christie, he believes, provided a counterbalance for the public, who is usually shortchanged compared to developers with deep coffers and ready access to decision makers.

Ultimately, Christie is just one vote on the commission, a government body that can be easily overridden by the Board of Supervisors. And the Planning Commission rarely gains much public attention, aside from a small circle of activists and wonks. But Christie’s departure would signify much more than just the loss of a mid-level decision maker who is virtually a volunteer (planning commissioners make $150 per meeting); it would be a sign the county’s political infrastructure is vulnerable to pressure from private interests.

“I think the message is going to be loud and clear among those circles,” Veesart said.

What’s odd is not that Christie might be forced out; what’s odd is the timing. She’s served for five years as Patterson’s appointee and has come under fire before. Calls for her blood peaked months ago but have faded.

 Why now?

 By most accounts, her position on the county’s future energy policy was the final straw; a position that poses a financial threat to large solar projects—projects involving people with ties to certain county officials.

“I think it’s the solar stuff, I do,” said Robin Bell, of the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy.

Two large solar electric projects have been proposed for construction in the Carrizo Plains, which is in Patterson’s district. There were originally three projects, but after several sales and company buyouts, SunPower and First Solar stand as the only applicants. Both companies have a lot riding on those projects, which came about after PG&E brokered a deal to add 800 megawatts of power to its grid. State law requires utility companies to increase supplies of renewable energy.

 The latest Wedbush research report for stock investors, published Dec. 4, gave both solar companies neutral ratings. The report warns that expected lawsuits and delays in the approval process could significantly extend company timelines to construction. According to the Wedbush analysis, SunPower’s share price anticipated for the next 12 months is scaled back from $29 to $21.

And the escalating global market, particularly because of Chinese solar manufacturers, means First Solar and SunPower must build a lot of solar panels to stay competitive, explained Wedbush solar analyst Christine Hersey.

“Investors just need to realize it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than maybe they were previously thinking,” Hersey said, adding that the Carrizo projects are the largest U.S. projects ever proposed by either company.

Although the projects are the vanguard of a state and national push for green energy, they have come under intense scrutiny because of potential impacts to wildlife. Neither project has yet moved to the county’s approval process—both are still drafting environmental review documents.

In June 2009, a deliberative process began to unfold that potentially could undercut such large projects as the ones proposed in the Carrizo, and it originated in the Planning Commission.

Simultaneously, some critics were calling for Christie’s resignation as she and the other commissioners were redrafting the county’s General Plan. Over multiple meetings, the commissioners have been updating policies for the Conservation and Open Space Element of the plan. Some of the policy reforms focus on energy: namely what kind, where should power plants be built, and should there be large power plants or should we instead favor solar panels on rooftops? Should energy companies be required to avoid environmental impacts or merely offset them?

Such were the questions the commissioners pondered during the course of the early meetings. It was a rough start, but as the commissioners gained momentum in their review, Christie became the focal point in the most contested debates about the new energy policies. Indeed, Christie provided the groundwork for the current version of policies with a draft she wrote based on public comments—if only because no one else brought language to the table. Though the commissioners continued to work from Christie’s draft, she personally caught so much flak she felt obligated to explain what she had provided. “They’re not necessarily my edits,” Christie said on July 6. “They’re a reflection of the public’s input.”

But what the public wanted and what some commissioners were willing to concede were mostly disparate. Some policy language gave preference to distributed power sources—solar panels on rooftops—instead of large local industrial solar plants. Other bits of wording went a bit beyond historical county guidelines by saying that in SLO County, new projects should avoid environmental impacts. Historically, commissioners and some county planners argued, projects are only expected to mitigate impacts. But asking developers to avoid impacts may preclude some projects from passing county standards.

“My guess is four of us are a little more on the side of accepting that there may be some trade-offs,” Commissioner Anne Wyatt said. In other words, the policies Christie proposed went too far.

Commissioner Carlyn Christianson also warned the policies might restrict projects from moving through the county’s approval process. But Christie countered, laughing as though she was going crazy, “So nothing in this document is going to prohibit anything from happening. All this document is going to do is to lay out a general path. These are general guidelines.”

She continued, “And I’m getting a little bit of a sense that we’re trying to craft this document to meet the needs of some specific applicants, which I think is completely inappropriate.”

By July 23, representatives from the solar companies were attending the meetings in person and submitting letters on the record urging the county to pull back on the restrictions.

As the commissioners wrapped up the energy element, they tentatively approved the language, but left it on uncertain ground. Surprisingly, Christianson and Wyatt, who are both part of the Democratic 3-2 majority, actually apologized as they closed the books on the energy element.

“I do not feel that some of the decisions made by the commission are things I do agree with, but I do think the Board of Supervisors will have a chance to review some of those decisions made by the commission,” Christianson said.

On Dec. 17, Christie and the rest of the commission are scheduled to finalize the new General Plan elements. Some commissioners hinted they want to revise the earlier language and gut the suggestions Christie included.

It is an undeniably tense issue for the commission, so significant that solar representatives have been drawn into the debate before their projects go up for public review.

“There’s been quite a bit of discussion about Sarah’s role as chairman of the Planning Commission and her extensive involvement in revising the open space element of the county’s General Plan,” said Chris Crotty of Crotty Consulting in San Diego.

click to enlarge NOT WORTH IT ANYMORE :  Supervisor Jim Patterson long withstood  pressure to remove Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie, but something or someone recently changed his mind. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NOT WORTH IT ANYMORE : Supervisor Jim Patterson long withstood pressure to remove Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie, but something or someone recently changed his mind.
Crotty’s name might sound familiar for two reasons. First, he has a long history as a political consultant in SLO County, having guided the election campaigns of Supervisors Patterson, Adam Hill, and Bruce Gibson. And second, SunPower recently hired Crotty as a consultant.

“Let me put it this way,” Crotty said. “The document that the planning commission utilized to make those changes was a document that was authored by Sarah Christie.”

It’s not only that Crotty is being paid to represent a company trying to build in SLO County and is buddies with the people who will make the decision, or that Christie may have upset the balance on a project in Patterson’s district. If you ask Bell or Veesart why they think Christie’s job is on the line, it’s because she irked the wrong people.

When it comes to the large-scale solar projects, Bell said, “It was apparent that Sarah was going in one direction and Jim was going in the other.”

But after tidal waves of pressure for Patterson to remove Christie, which she had always survived, would the solar companies somehow be able to drown her out? “You can bet that it’s a factor in this,” Veesart said. “You can bank it.”

Crotty responded that no one from SunPower asked that she be removed.

Damage control

Neither Christie nor Patterson would confirm she’s slated to retire from her position, though Patterson told New Times on Dec. 14 he would have a statement later during the week. Perhaps a wave of support for Christie would sway Patterson’s decision, though many say they worry it’s unlikely things will change.

According to several of Christie’s supporters, who asked not to have their names disclosed because a decision has not been made official or public, Christie will be replaced during the first meeting next year. One of her supporters, referring to criticism levied against Christie throughout her five years in the position, said, “I think that it’s just been this drum beat. I figure that it’s gotten harder and harder for the supervisor to ignore.”

Her worried supporters have lobbied Patterson. But Patterson insisted a recent meeting with several of them had nothing to do with Christie and anything about her being kicked out was merely gossip.

One person who attended that meeting told New Times “it was just weird.” The group urged Patterson to change his mind while he sat, listened, jotted a few notes, but didn’t indicate what he would do.

“What prompted him to even think about hanging her?” the attendee wondered.

For now, the message is being tightly controlled. One potential replacement could be Patterson’s appointee to the Water Resources Advisory Committee, Dan O’Grady, who was nervous to comment on the matter and a bit cryptic about whether he had been pegged for the job.

“I need to just refer you to Jim about any questions about his appointments,” O’Grady said dryly. “I don’t think that would be appropriate for me to [comment].”

O’Grady didn’t return a follow-up call.

Andy Caldwell, who’s a Santa Maria talk show host and executive director of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business, has become one of Christie’s biggest, or certainly one of the loudest, critics. On July 14, Caldwell publicly called for Christie to be removed from the commission. He asked the Board of Supervisors directly and repeated his opinion in a commentary he contributed to New Times (“Remove Sarah Christie from the planning commission,” July 23).

Asked about Christie, Caldwell was thrilled she might be on the way out.

“But I think what’s occurring right now is what I would refer to as an echo,” Caldwell said, meaning the blasts from himself and others were reverberating from the opposing political spectrum. “And that is the truth about Sarah Christie is a lot of the lefties don’t even like her because she doesn’t listen to them.”

He went on: “I think ultimately this is going to come back to Patterson and [Supervisor Bruce] Gibson where it rightly belongs because they’re not reining her in. … Sarah Christie’s days are numbered.”

Christie has never pretended she’s trying to win friends. Her reputation and tone on the commission is usually hard-edged and sometimes stubborn. After the 2008 election—which switched the Board of Supervisors from a Republican to a Democratic majority, which was reflected by the commission—Christie appeared to mellow a bit. No longer on the defensive as far as voting, her attitude tempered from boiling to a quiet simmer. By reputation, Christie has been a strong voice on the commission for smart growth and environmental stewardship—a voice that has likely won her as many fans as it’s created enemies.

 “Sarah has shown more people skills than she had previously,” said Jerry Bunin of the Homebuilders Association of the Central Coast. “But I wouldn’t call her a fair and balanced commissioner. She’s not objective unless the housing is overwhelmingly affordable and therefore difficult to make financial sense to build.”

Patterson was first elected in 2004—he was re-elected in 2008—beating out contender Mike Ryan. Christie was integral in the first campaign and was appointed to be his planning commissioner. She held the office through his re-election last year. She’s also the legislative director for the California Coastal Commission, and has a long résumé of community and environmental activism, starting as a journalist and local government employee.

In 2009, as part of a regular rotation, Christie landed the commission chairmanship, which seemed to throw a fresh coat of paint on the target on her back. Earlier this year, the bloodlust from Christie’s detractors spiked after the release of a 2008 grand jury report. Though Christie wasn’t named, the grand jury reported that she may have overstepped her bounds when she contacted the state Department of Fish and Game about a sand and gravel mining operation proposed in Paso Robles. But the grand jury recommended no punishment, nor in fact any actual wrongdoing, stating instead that planning commissioners should have more training.

If indeed Christie is forced out, it would be a huge loss, several supporters told New Times.

SLO Councilwoman Jan Marx said Christie is “very thorough, very bright, and she knows a lot. Sometimes that’s threatening to people.”

“She is magnificent,” Veesart said. “There’s no other way to describe her. … She’s leagues above everybody else in county politics.”

If Christie is forced out, her absence will resonate far beyond the Planning Commission. As one supporter said, “I think this is getting very political and I am sorely disappointed in Jim Patterson.”

 Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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