Despite dissent from local political groups and community members, all planning in Santa Barbara County will be under the control of the Executive Office beginning July 1, in an attempt by county officials to increase the efficiency of the Office of Planning and Development.
The Board of Supervisors voted to temporarily transfer control of the planning division to the County Executive Office — responsible for implementing decisions made by the board — at its June 17 meeting, following a proposal made by 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone. Members of the League of Women Voters, the Santa Barbara County Action Group, the Santa Barbara chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and former 3rd District Supervisor Gail Marshall voiced their opposition to the transfer. County Chief Executive Officer Mike Brown said he, along with Assistant County Executive Officer Terri Maus-Nisich, will oversee the relocated division. He said the planning division is expected to finalize the Santa Ynez Valley Master Plan, standardize the county’s zoning ordinances and complete the I.V. Master Plan before it is transferred back to the Planning and Development Office on July 1, 2006.
Firestone said he thinks the transfer will help the two divisions of the Planning and Development Office increase their individual productivity. By splitting the development office — which oversees zoning and land permits — from the planning division, he said he thinks both departments will operate more efficiently and quickly on the I.V. Master Plan, as well as other county projects.
“By giving them a chance to work alone, I think it’s going to make them both stronger,” Firestone said.
Diane Meester, assistant director of the Planning and Development Office, said the exact price of the relocating the planning division has not been calculated, but the costs and effects of the transfer should be minimal.
“Essentially we will just move all the people that work in the comprehensive planning division to the County Executive Office for oversight,” Meester said. “They’re not changing the work program. They’re not changing staffing.”
Scott Bull of I.V. Surfrider said he and other members are concerned that the relocation of the planning division could potentially be detrimental to the environmental review process applied to new development in the county.
“This decision would have large impacts on future development — it might be less regulated,” Bull said. “We would want the highest environmental review for any projects on the coast and any weakening of the review process is a dangerous road to take. It potentially has that effect.”
Firestone said the transfer will not affect the county’s environmental review standards.
“The answer is no — it does not mean a change in policy,” Firestone said. “It will make the planning department more efficient and more responsive, and hopefully more able to get a master plan finished.”
Marshall said she disagrees with Firestone’s reasoning for moving the planning division out of the Planning and Development Office and she said she thinks the Board of Supervisors should have allowed for more public participation and comment in the decision.
“It’s nonsense,” Marshall said. “The breaking up of an entire department by a board who claims to want efficiency is ludicrous. When I was in office, it was always extremely important to know what constituents were thinking about any particular issue and that’s not happening anymore.”
Firestone said he believes the Board of Supervisors followed the correct procedures in its decision to relocate the planning division, despite arguments by Marshall and other community members.
“The process wasn’t flawed — this happens all the time,” Firestone said.
Bull said Surfrider will try to make the relocation plan and process more public by monitoring the divided Planning and Development Office throughout the upcoming year.
“It seemed as though the political will had its way and took advantage of the public,” Bull said. “Surfrider will definitely be staying on top of this issue.”