A NEW LOOK AT AREA PLANNING COMMISSIONS

INTRODUCTION

In 1976, the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) recommended to the Board of Supervisors (Board) that it consider establishing a Santa Ynez Regional Planning Commission, composed of elected members, to advise the Board on Santa Ynez Valley problems as well as to handle all planning matters in that Valley. In other words, LAFCO was proposing a planning commission solely for the Santa Ynez Valley. The County Counsel advised that such local planning commissioners could not be elected but could only be appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Planning Director and the Administrative Officer both objected to the idea on the grounds of duplication of services and increased cost. The proposal failed.

The 1995-1996 Grand Jury proposed that the Board of Supervisors consider establishing a Goleta Area Planning Commission, finding that "The Grand Jury determined there are sufficient reasons for the Board of Supervisors to explore the establishment of a Goleta Area Planning Commission." Again, a full-service and replacement commission was envisioned. LAFCO agreed with the Grand Jury’s proposal, arguing, among other things, that "… an APC should be formed to implement the Goleta Valley Community Plan which was adopted by the Board just a few years ago."

In an extensive opinion to the Grand Jury, the County Counsel advised that the Board had authority to create more than one planning commission, and could create Area Planning Commissions if it chose to do so. The Planning Director (at the request of the Planning Commission) advised the Board, among other things, that creating one full-service area commission might lead to demand by other areas of the County such as Montecito and Orcutt for similar treatment, and that inconsistency of interpretations and legislative recommendations between the central County Planning Commission and a Goleta Area Planning Commission might prove troublesome. Once more the proposal failed.

The 2000-2001 Grand Jury believes that the time has come to address this issue again. However, the issue should be framed somewhat differently than it was before.

When the idea of Area Planning Commissions was first addressed in 1976, the County was committed to the concept of County-wide comprehensive land use planning. Today, while there are those who still favor that concept, the fact is that Community Plans have become the standard, and the Comprehensive Plan has become an amalgam of separate elements. Thus, the County has adopted the Summerland, Montecito, Goleta, Los Alamos, and Orcutt Community Plans; and also has adopted the Conservation, Noise, Open Space, Seismic Safety & Safety, Land Use, Agricultural, Circulation, Housing, and Energy elements of the Comprehensive Plan.

In 1996, when the Area Planning Commission (APC) concept was next considered, it was solely in the context of Goleta, always a touchy subject. Also, once more, it was considered in a duplicative format; i.e., a second commission that would duplicate (and, perhaps, make decisions in conflict with) the central County Planning Commission. As will be seen, the 2000-2001 Grand Jury envisions APCs that are neither duplicative nor confrontational with the County Planning Commission.

Moreover, although the Comprehensive Plan has not been comprehensively updated since 1980, the Planning and Development Department (referred to herein as "the Department") has no plans to update it comprehensively in the near future.

In the meantime, the County has been in litigation over the recently adopted Orcutt Plan; the Carpinteria community is at war over the proposed Toro Canyon Plan; 40 community volunteers have drafted a "Blueprint" for the Santa Ynez Valley; a proposed community plan for Lompoc is on a five-year work schedule; and the agricultural interests in North County are so incensed over what they see as misguided tampering with their livelihoods by South Coast environmentalists that they are threatening to lead the North in secession from the South.

If Area Planning Commissions are ever to have a place in Santa Barbara County’s future, this Grand Jury believes that the time is now, for the type of Area Planning Commission proposed in this report.

WHAT THE GRAND JURY PROPOSES

The Grand Jury proposes that the Board of Supervisors create, by ordinance (not simply by resolution), Area Planning Commissions (APCs) for the purpose of master land use planning for the undeveloped (and largely agricultural) lands within the following Valleys: Santa Ynez (perhaps first as a prototype model), Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Carpinteria. The Jury proposes that such APCs have the following characteristics:

The Board of Supervisors could create the framework for all four APCs in a single ordinance at the outset. To determine how this concept would work in fact, the Board could select the members of one APC as a prototype and defer selection of the members of the other APCs until this "shakedown" is complete and the results have been assessed.

The Grand Jury does not propose an APC for the Goleta Valley at this time because of the ongoing incorporation proceedings involving an attempt to create a city in that Valley. The proceedings, which may or may not result in city-hood, will not be concluded before this Grand Jury report has been published. An APC might well be considered for the Goleta Valley when the incorporation proceedings are concluded.

REASONS FOR AND SCOPE OF THE INVESTIGATION

Every citizen of this County is generally aware of the need for affordable housing; indeed, the term has become a campaign mantra for every local politician. Every citizen of this County also is generally aware that very little land is available for such housing, particularly on the South Coast. The growing dispute between North and South County over many issues, particularly resource conservation and agriculture, has become so intense that there is serious talk of North County secession.

Entering into this political thicket where only angels or fools would dare to tread, the Grand Jury decided to appoint an Investigative Committee to see what, if anything, might be done by way of new governance to address these issues and, it hopes, to start to resolve them.

Over the last 10 months, that Committee interviewed 27 witnesses, including

- the Director of the County’s Planning Department (four times),
- three former members of the County’s Planning Commission,
- the Planning Department’s Deputy Director for Comprehensive Planning,
- a member of the County Administrator’s staff,
- two former members of the Orcutt General Plan Advisory Committee,
- two professional planning consultants,
- a member of the Santa Maria Planning Commission,
- four members of the Department’s Rural Resource Protection Program Technical Advisory Committee,
- an attorney who specializes in land use matters,
- the Vice Provost for Institutional Planning at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (who is a land use planning expert and a member of that school’s community planning faculty),
- the Deputy Planning Director for the Santa Barbara County Association of Governments,
- two of the largest Carpinteria greenhouse flower growers,
- the chairman of the County’s Agricultural Committee,
- two former Supervisors,
- a vineyard owner and management representative,
- the Deputy Agricultural Commissioner for San Luis Obispo County,
- a co-chair of the Santa Ynez Valley Blueprint Committee,
- two members of the Board of the Cachuma Resource Conservation District,
- a principal planner in the Lompoc City Planning Department, the principal planner in the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department responsible for its agricultural grading ordinance, and
- four members of the Natural Resource Conservation District in San Luis Obispo.

All the San Luis Obispo witnesses traveled to the North County Government Center to meet with the Committee so that it did not have to travel repeatedly to San Luis Obispo. The Grand Jury wishes to express its gratitude for their cooperation.

Additionally, the Committee reviewed the County’s current Budget and Strategic Scan 2000, the Department’s five-year comprehensive planning work schedule approved by the Board of Supervisors in February 2000; the Santa Ynez Valley Blueprint, the Department’s Santa Ynez Valley Newsletter; materials relating to the two failed attempts at creating specific Area Planning Commissions; materials concerning the San Diego County Planning Groups; voluminous materials relating to resource conservation, agricultural grading, and the zoning and master planning of agricultural lands including the Agricultural Element of the Comprehensive Plan adopted in 1991; the Status of Agriculture Report adopted in 1999; the Right to Farm Ordinance; the Orcutt Community Plan litigation settlement; the Department’s Consumer’s Reports in 1998 and 1999; and the 1980 Comprehensive Plan.

It was the overwhelming consensus of the witnesses interviewed that Area Planning Commissions representative of the areas they represent would be conducive to more direct community involvement and better master planning in the long run. The witnesses spoke of providing an ongoing and stable public forum, one that does not exist today. They discussed the General Plan Advisory Committees that had been involved with several previous community plans, and expressed the view that permanent Area Planning Commissions reporting directly to the Board of Supervisors would give the communities they represented a feeling of real participation in the decisions affecting their communities and livelihoods—as one planning professional put it, "a sense of ownership of the plan." The professional planners interviewed stressed the importance to the ultimate success of master planning of community input at the outset, before irreconcilable differences could form.

However, there were those who doubted that the Supervisors would ever put such authority in the hands of truly independent local commissions. There were also those who doubted that Area Planning Commissions would be able to do any real good because, they felt, land use planning had become so political that there was no way to change it. This remains to be seen.

THE PROBLEM THE GRAND JURY SEEKS TO ADDRESS

So Little Developable Land and So Many Claims to It

Santa Barbara County now has approximately 1,634,000 acres of land and, according to the 2000 census, 399,347 people occupying it.

The County’s Strategic Scan 2000 breaks down present County land usage as follows: 39% Los Padres National Forest; 38% large agricultural; 10% small agricultural; 6% Vandenberg Air Force Base; 3% non-municipal government; 2% cities, and 2% unincorporated urban.

The Strategic Scan describes the residentially and commercially zoned build-out capacities and housing-to-population shortfalls in 2030 as follows:

If 126,767 new (not just affordable) houses are actually needed by 2030, and there are only 4,213 acres of residentially zoned land in the County to build them on, and most of the remaining land is currently zoned agricultural, the dispute between the agriculturalists in the North County and the environmentalists in the South County over what to do about that land in view of the need for housing will become (if it is not now) the principal land use planning issue for the foreseeable future. It should be addressed now before it becomes an even greater, and, perhaps, unsolvable problem.

Something More Than General Plan Advisory Committees Are Needed

Great care must be taken over what to do about agricultural lands. Agriculture is the County’s single largest industry with a 1999 crop value of $653 million, far exceeding any other industry, including tourism, which accounted for hotel/motel room sales of just under $181 million in 1999. Santa Barbara’s agricultural production currently ranks 30th out of 3,000 counties nationwide.

So the decisions about what, if any, currently zoned agricultural land is to be made available for housing development in the future, and when and how it is to be developed, are ones which will require a delicate balancing of the needs of agriculturalists and the needs of those who seek housing, as affordable as it can be. Such decisions must be formulated by people who are as knowledgeable as possible about both the need for and the effects of such developments.

The Grand Jury suggests that those decisions might best be made initially within the affected communities, by representatives who know those communities best and have the most to gain and lose by their decisions. Members of General Plan Advisory Committees are selected by the County Supervisor of an area for a specific and time-limited task. Each such Committee is unique, marching to the different tunes set for them by particular projects. Although the selected members are from the communities being planned, they are not the designated representatives of permanent commissions who come to be seen as truly representing the interests of those communities, and no one else.

Thus, the Grand Jury respectfully submits that initial decisions about, for example, (1) what agricultural land is sufficiently non-productive to be made available for housing, (2) where and how to allow such development, and (3) what the individual communities desire in that respect, are best placed in the hands of Area Planning Commissions.

An Area Planning Commission can initially settle such issues after thorough public hearings and discussions in the affected communities, including technical input from independent professionals, before feet are set in concrete. Otherwise, the Board of Supervisors will have to decide the issues in heated, acrimonious, and highly charged political debate.

It is not only a rational approach to the handling of very important but highly divisive issues, it might be the fairest way to do so as well. Why shouldn’t the individual communities involved in these major, long-term decisions have the first chance at deciding them for themselves?

North County farmers fume when planners and regulators in the South County try to tell them how they can plow their land. Think of what their feelings will be like when the County decides, as it must in the near future, what agricultural lands must be opened to development to provide housing for the population growth expected to occur in the next 30 years.

The Orcutt Community Plan was so disliked by some in that community that litigation resulted. Although a General Plan Advisory Committee helped draft that Plan, it was not entirely that Committee’s, and the process by which it was arrived at appeared to please no one.

The proposed Toro Canyon Plan is so embroiled in controversy that it may never be adopted, or, if it is, may well lead to more litigation. No General Plan Advisory Committee was involved in that proposed Plan, and Carpinteria residents have expressed the opinion that this omission is one of the reasons for the present situation.

No Updating of the Comprehensive Plan Is Scheduled for the Next Five Years

As noted, in February 2000 the Department presented a five-year work schedule for comprehensive planning to the Board of Supervisors, which was adopted. Despite acknowledging that "The need for a long-term dynamic program for reviewing and updating the Comprehensive Plan was identified in the report issued by the 1998-99 Grand Jury," the schedule does not include any updating of or revisions to the 1980 Comprehensive Plan.

The five-year work schedule identified completion of the Goleta and Lompoc Community Plans as being of the highest priority. It also scheduled various projects for consideration and completion over the next five years, including the Carpinteria Greenhouse Study, the Toro Canyon Plan, the Oak Protection Ordinance, Resource Protection Policies, the Santa Ynez Community Plan, the Lompoc and Revised Goleta Community Plans, updating the Summerland and Los Alamos Community Plans, and Rural Lands Rezoning.

The stage is thus set for Area Planning Commissions to be formed and given the assignment of dealing with many of those issues before they are presented to the Supervisors as faits accomplis, without the serious and substantial community and independent professional input that the APCs could provide.

Why not start with the Santa Ynez Community Plan? That community has spent the last two years voluntarily studying its planning issues and has produced a 52-page report on its work and conclusions entitled "The Valley Blueprint: a Collaborative Vision for the Future of the Santa Ynez Valley." In that report, the 40 volunteers who assisted in its preparation said, "We want to increase local input into planning policies that affect our communities." The County Planning Department has recently published the "Santa Ynez Valley Newsletter," which describes the Valley’s demographics in some detail. Among many other things, the Newsletter noted that 76% of the Valley is now designated for agricultural uses, 15% is part of the Los Padres National Forest, and only 2% is presently in cities or unincorporated urban areas.

While we understand that a General Plan Advisory Committee has been selected to prepare a Community Plan for the Santa Ynez Valley, that Committee is in its infancy, and several years of work remains to be done. Some, or perhaps even all, of the members of that Committee may be candidates for the selection pool for a Santa Ynez Area Planning Commission. They may even prefer to be members of that Commission. The Grand Jury respectfully suggests that the Supervisors consider reforming that Committee into an Area Planning Commission in the manner outlined earlier in this Report.

AREA PLANNING COMMISSIONS MAY PROVIDE SOME SOLUTIONS

The Law Not Only Allows Them, APCs Are Expressly Contemplated by State Law

The California Government Code provides in pertinent part that:

"The legislative body of each … county [the County Board of Supervisors] shall by ordinance assign the functions of the planning agency to a planning department, one or more planning commissions, or the legislative body itself, or any combination thereof, as it deems necessary" [Section 65100]; and

"The legislative body may create one or more planning commissions each of which shall report directly to the legislative body. The legislative body shall specify the membership of the commission or commissions …. If it creates more than one planning commission, the legislative body shall prescribe the issues, responsibilities, or geographic jurisdiction assigned to each commission …." [Section 65101 (a)]

In an opinion to the Grand Jury dated January 18, 1996 the County Counsel stated, among other things, that:

"Under 65101 (a), the Board of Supervisors may confer upon a local planning commission all of the powers that the ‘regular’ planning commissions would exercise within a geographic area. Alternatively, the Board may confer upon a local planning commission some of the functions within the geographic area, and leave other functions with the ‘regular’ planning commission (e.g., advice on general plan amendments, major project decisions)."

"Most likely, legislation creating a Goleta Planning Commission would not be considered a ‘project’ requiring environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, because it involves ‘general policy and procedure making.’ "

While the Board chose not to create a Goleta Planning Commission, the County Counsel’s opinions concerning it should still apply.

APCs Fall Within the County’s Strategic Issues for New Forms of Governance

In October 2000 the County Administrator presented five "Strategic Issues" for adoption to the Board of Supervisors. Among those five issues were these two: "What are the most efficient and effective governance structures for the County?" and "What should the County’s land-use policy be to accommodate anticipated population growth?" Since the Board adopted those issues as its own, it should now determine what governance structures might most efficiently and effectively develop land-use policies to accommodate the County’s anticipated population growth.

While adding a new layer of government in the form of one or more Area Planning Commissions might not be what the County Administrator had in mind, the Grand Jury believes that such commissions may in fact be the most efficient and most effective ways, at least in the long run, to deal with the enormous and politically divisive issues that must be decided to accomplish the goal.

There Is Precedent for the Grand Jury’s Proposal in Other Counties

San Diego County has 26 Planning Groups that perform a wide range of advisory functions for San Diego’s Board of Supervisors. These functions include "… the preparation, amendment and implementation of community and subregional plans." They also "… may advise the appropriate boards and commissions on discretionary projects as well as on planning and land use matters important to the community." The members of the Planning Groups serve four-year terms, and are elected. Vacancies are filled by appointment. The Planning Groups are administered and staffed by the County’s Planning Department, which believes that they perform a useful service to the communities they serve. Their membership varies from five to 15 depending on the size and wishes of the communities represented.

San Luis Obispo County has 12 Advisory Councils that assist its Board of Supervisors in a wide range of planning matters. Their effectiveness in bringing central government to the people in a geographically dispersed population such as we have in Santa Barbara County is praised by its Planning Department.

Contra Costa County has two seven-member APCs. Its Planning Department says, "They work, and give the public a sense of real participation in the planning process." The commissioners are appointed by the Board of Supervisors for four-year terms.

Riverside County experimented with three full-service APCs in the 1970s but gave them up for the same reasons that the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors rejected the Santa Ynez and Goleta APCs: logistical difficulties (getting central staff to the three outlying locations where they met in a very large county), and, as proved over time, unnecessary duplications of services at greater cost than expected.

The Time Is Right

As noted, the Department’s five-year comprehensive planning schedule calls for (1) updating the Goleta, Summerland, and Los Alamos Community Plans; (2) starting and, one would hope, completing the Santa Ynez and Lompoc Community Plans; and (3) completing the Toro Canyon Plan, the Oak Protection Ordinance, and the Carpinteria Greenhouse Study. Each of those projects might benefit from being considered by an Area Planning Commission.

The Resource Protection Ordinance and its concomitant amendments to the Grading Ordinance for agricultural "grading" are currently the subject of study by the Department’s Technical Advisory Committee. The Grand Jury has monitored that Committee’s work, and has been very impressed by the facilitator’s ability to work through difficult disagreements between the agriculturalists and the environmentalists, and by the willingness of the participants to try to iron out their differences. We suggest that this Committee is a good example of how similar work might be done as effectively, or even more effectively, by Area Planning Commissions.

Accordingly, the Grand Jury believes that the time is right to put one or more APCs in place. There is at least five years worth of planning to be accomplished in the Santa Ynez, Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Carpinteria Valleys. Let’s put APCs to work on facilitating solutions to the issues inherent in those community planning activities as soon as possible.

The Problems May Defy Traditional Solutions

Santa Barbara County finds itself in a Catch-22 situation of its own making. Santa Barbara’s natural beauty and climate, protected by tough environmental and low density of development laws, have helped to create a lifestyle that has raised property values so high as to make homes unaffordable to many newcomers, especially on the South Coast. These productive citizens are often forced to drive several hours a day between work and homes they can afford. If this situation continues the County will face a real crisis in finding good workers in critical fields such as nursing, social work, public safety, teaching, and others.

A possible solution to the lack of affordable housing is to free up for development some agriculturally zoned land that is no longer economically viable for agriculture. However, there are those who want to see cattle roaming the hills (even though cattle grazing may no longer be economic), and there are those who want to regulate soil cultivation under the guise of natural resource protection without studied consideration of the generally low profit margins and weather-intensive nature of agriculture. Farming may be the least able to adapt to the vagaries of governmental permit processing of any industry. Regardless of how far along in the permit process the cultivation and planting activities are, a crop or a vine must be planted at a certain time or the year is lost.

Moreover, what land could be freed up for housing development with the most benefit to the communities involved and with the least detriment to the agricultural interests involved?

The Grand Jury believes that all of these questions should be first addressed by those most directly involved rather than by bureaucrats, however well intentioned, who live and work in other areas.

The Grand Jury believes that it may no longer be in the County’s best interests, or even politically possible, to have the Department’s comprehensive planners, located in downtown Santa Barbara, process these questions in the traditional manner; i.e., by presenting their proposals to local communities for citizen comment.

The questions discussed above are too important, and the interests of the various communities and affected groups are too disparate, to be resolved effectively by using the old methods.

But, what if an APC does not do what the Department wants or what the Planning Commission would have done? The Supervisors would retain the option of siding with the Department or the Commission and overruling the APC. However, in that event, the Supervisors will have had the benefit of a serious attempt at the local level to resolve the issue, and will know with some certainty what the local community really wants before it decides the issue.

The Planning Commission is always backlogged, and the Department is stretched thin. Why not relieve this crippling congestion by trying something different?

It may have been politically expedient in the past to have development slowed down by bureaucratic logjams created by an understaffed Planning Department and an overworked Planning Commission. Issues that are now, or are soon to be, in the forefront of land-use planning policy demand that a better way be found.

Regionalization of governance is today’s buzzword, and regionalization can be beneficial. (See the 2000-2001 Grand Jury Report entitled "A Regional Approach To Providing Better Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services To Santa Barbara County Residents.") Nevertheless, there is still room for governance which begins at the local level and works its way upward. (See the 2000-2001 Grand Jury Report entitled "Independent Special Districts.")

FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

FINDINGS

Finding 1: Santa Barbara County’s 1980 Comprehensive (General) Plan has not been significantly updated since its adoption. Community Planning has become the norm.

Finding 2: Community Plans have been adopted for Summerland, Montecito, Goleta, Los Alamos and Orcutt, with Community Plans either underway (Toro Canyon) or being scheduled for the Santa Ynez and Lompoc Valleys.

Finding 3: Santa Barbara County is facing a severe affordable housing shortage in urban areas, with a projected need of an additional 126,767 houses by 2030.

Finding 4: Currently, Santa Barbara County’s landmass consists of approximately 1,634,000 acres, of which approximately 784,320 acres are zoned exclusively for agricultural use, and of which only 4,213 acres are zoned for residential use. Most of the 784,320 acres zoned for agricultural use is also preserved for agriculture under 10-year contracts with the County in accordance with the Williamson Act.

Finding 5: Under current zoning and the agricultural preservation contracts within the Williamson Act there is a substantial shortage of land available to accommodate the projected housing need.

Finding 6: If the projected housing need is to be accommodated in this County serious consideration will have to be given to rezoning and freeing from Williamson Act contracts some of this County’s least productive agricultural land.

Finding 7: The decisions in that respect (e.g., what, if any, agricultural land should be freed up for housing development, and when and how such development should occur) will seriously affect the local communities (particularly in the Santa Maria, Lompoc and Santa Ynez Valleys), and will require a delicate balancing of needs and interests.

Finding 8: None of the agriculturally zoned land in this County has been master planned for development, and there are no current plans to do so.

Finding 9: It is the view of planning professionals that master planning decisions should be made with as much local community input as possible, at the earliest possible stages.

Finding 10: While so-called General Plan Advisory Committees have been used in the past in connection with the drafting of some (but not all) Community Plans, such Committees have been selected by individual Supervisors, have been given different and varying (from plan to plan) functions and guidelines, and have not been permanent, so that they have not been involved with either plan implementation or plan updating.

Finding 11: The County is currently facing a growing series of controversies between agricultural and environmental interests, between South and North County residents, and between the County’s governmental establishment, which is essentially located in downtown Santa Barbara, and North County residents, particularly farmers, which may be threatening the stability of the County and its effective governance.

Finding 12: Area Planning Commissions are authorized by State law, and are used to varying degrees in several counties throughout the State.

Finding 13: If the membership of Area Planning Commissions is carefully and non-politically selected to represent fairly all of the residents and interests within the areas they are selected to represent, such Commissions have the potential for providing the Board of Supervisors with the best, most complete, and ongoing local community advice about master planning their areas, particularly the master planning of agricultural lands where they live and work, that it is possible to obtain.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Recommendation 1: That the Board of Supervisors create, by ordinance and pursuant to Government Code Sections 65100 and 65101, four Area Planning Commissions for the purpose of master land-use planning for the undeveloped (and largely agricultural) lands within the Santa Ynez, Lompoc, Santa Maria, and Carpinteria Valleys. These Area Planning Commissions would not be involved with zoning administration, conditional use permits, zone variances, or specific project approvals unless requested to do so by the Board of Supervisors.

Recommendation 2: That the Board of Supervisors give the Area Planning Commissions such authority as is necessary for them to carry out their duties and functions, and appoint members thereto in such numbers, for such terms of office, and in such manner as is consistent with the foregoing report of this Grand Jury.

AFFECTED AGENCIES

Board of Supervisors
All Findings and Recommendations

Office of the County Administrator
All Findings and Recommendations

Planning and Development Department
All Findings and Recommendations