ECM EDITORIAL: SAVE COMMUNITY PLANNING GROUPS FROM DEVELOPER-BACKED SCHEME TO SQUELCH LOCAL INPUT
SIGN A PETITION! Key vote Feb. 29 could take away your right to be informed and speak out
By Miriam Raftery, Editor, East County Magazine
“People will never hear about projects until after they’re done if this [elimination of planning groups] goes through.” – Mark Ostrander, chair, Jacumba sponsor group
February 2, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – I've rarely published an editorial commentary, reserving my opinion for only those matters with the gravest of consequences for East County. One such matter will come before San Diego's Supervisors on February 29, when supervisors will vote on whether or not to eliminate all community planning groups countywide. They will also weigh other “reforms” aimed at making it easier to pave over paradise--or put a goliath-scale project next door to you--with nobody the wiser until it's too late.
This ill-conceived idea is the brainchild of a “Red Tape Reduction Task Force” stacked with developers. If adopted, it will stifle voices of concerned residents in the early planning phases of major development projects from condo complexes to wind farms.
Danielle Cook, a concerned citizen in Jacumba, has launched an online petition calling on Supervisors to save community planning groups. I have signed it, and urge all County residents to do the same if you value a democratic process that allows people’s voices to be heard, not just special interests. You can sign the petition here: https://www.change.org/petitions/san-diego-county-supervisor-save-our-planning-and-sponsor-groups.
In December, Supervisors obtained recommendations from its Red Tape Reduction Task Force, which has the supposed goal of improving project processing. But citizen watchdog groups and community representatives contend it does just the opposite.
The petition states: “The Red Tape Reduction Task Force operated “under the radar” until some community members found out and forced the County to make the task Force’s recommendations public. The Supervisors will be voting on Wednesday, February 29th. Communities have until February 28th to make their opposition known…Don’t let the developers take away our rights to have a voice in our future.” Copies of the petition will be sent to all five Supervisors.
Planning groups are advisory. However local community planners have often been the first ones to alert community members to projects that could have serious impacts on the community characters, groundwater availability, fire safety, traffic and other concerns. Elected within the local communities, planning groups are also more apt to reflect the views and values of the community. If these groups are eliminated, such decisions will be made at the County level by people often far-removed from the communities that will be impacted.
Jacumba, where the petition’s author resides, is ground-zero for several massive-scale solar and wind farm projects, as well as a power substation and new high-voltage powerlines that dwarf local landmarks.
Surely local residents in East County communities should be informed about such plans—and have opportunities to give input in their hometown, not have to track complex County websites to ferret out information or drive two hours to downtown San Diego for hearings.
Many other local community planning groups in recent years have found themselves in the limelight over controversial land-use projects.
A few of these include Sunrise Powerlink, Blackwater’s proposed military training site in Potrero, wind energy projects, a water reclamation and sand mining project in El Monte Valley, a large housing development in Campo, major zoning changes in Alpine, conversion of a chicken range to homes near Mt. Helix, and a hunting dog training pond project proposed near Jamul.
Often, concerned planners have been the driving forces leading efforts to block or push forward major projects. After a planner in Potrero blew the whistle on Blackwater’s plans, concerned citizens led a march through a federal wilderness to show what would be lost—generating international media coverage. The chair of Boulevard’s planning group formed a nonprofit that has filed lawsuits over major projects and led a successful effort halt a controversial landfill.
Not everyone agrees that planning groups should be saved.
“I am a member of the APG and firmly believe this is a corrupt system that needs to be abolished,” said Lou Russo. “These planning groups have members who are gaming the system at enormous cost to the citizens and local businesses,” he said, citing as examples members who are real estate agents who stand to profit from denser zoning standards and the head of an environmental group that took grant money from SDG&E. He also voiced disappointment in the County District Attorney for declining to prosecuted alleged Brown Act violations. “The days of an altruistic belief that these groups represent the best interests of their communities is long gone.”
It's true there have been conflicts of interest by some planning group members; Alpine is not alone in such issues. But planning group members currently CAN be held accountable for their actions. When the Potrero Planning Group voted to recommend approval of a military training camp for Blackwater, a private military contractor, citizens held a recall election and ousted all five planners who had voted for the project. In Alpine, a planner with a land trust group that took grants from SDG&E was not renewed to chair a key subcommittee.
No such recourse seems possible if decisions are made by bureaucrats at a county department downtown. Plus since each supervisor represents a specific district, four of the five supervisors would have no accountability to voters in an area impacted by any specific development project. If voters disapprove of actions by County officials, there is recoures at the ballot box.
Planning groups have at times caused aggravation to County officials. Occasionally local planners have infringed citizens’ rights and violated the Brown Act (the state’s open government law), opening the door to litigation against the County and liability to taxpayers. Such instances have generally been resolved quickly, typically with votes rescinded and a process opened up for more input by the public.
Some planning groups have been plagued by internal squabbles bordering on dysfunction. But even the worst local planning groups have given citizens far more voice than they would have if these elected bodies are eliminated or gutted.
Planning groups have generally opened the way for citizens to provide input, also enabling locally elected planners to provide votes offering guidance to the County Department of Land Use and Supervisors.
Planning groups also have the potential to avert problems and save money for the County—provided current procedures are followed, notes Kim Hamilton, editor of the Deerhorn Valley Antler in the Jamul area.
“I am totally opposed to this newest attempt to exclude the public input,” she says. “We are currently dealing with a situation where neither residents nor the local planning group WERE notified of plans to create an extensive artificial wetland for training [hunting] dogs. Plans were already underway to use millions of gallons of precious groundwater to fill and maintain these ponds.”
Residents learned of the plan from a plumber contacted to install a pump at the wellhead. “But now significant public and private funds have already been expended. There is talk of moving the entire facility to another location. There is talk of lawsuits and class action,” Hamilton notes. “Had residents and the local planning group been properly noticed, this fiasco could have been averted.”
The proposal to eliminate planning groups and other moves to “improve” the planning process has alarmed many who have been involved in community planning around the county.
In an editorial in the North County Times, former Valley Center planner Lael Montgomery warned that developers’ lobbyists are prowling the halls at City Hall trying to pickup one vote needed to get rid of local planning groups and eliminate other safeguards for the public (as ECM previously reported here: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/8537 )
“The virulent new strain of developer-speculators who have seized prominence in San Diego County are all cut from the same cloth” Montgomery warned. “Right now, this herd is thundering to crush whatever might temper their plans ---- including community input.” Read more: http://www.nctimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/forum-don-t-let-supervisors-gut-planning-group-role/article_92a8bff3-f7b1-5737-9195-925d4baa5c45.html#ixzz1lGRRcMNK.
Even if planning groups aren’t obliterated completely, other task force proposals could have devastating impacts. For instance, a proposal to take away indemnification protecting community planning group members from liability for lawsuits could have a chilling effect. “Without it [indemnification], you will lose many if not all volunteer planners,” Donna Tisdale, chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, wrote in a letter to DPLU planning chief Devon Muto. “We realize that is likely the goal, but it is short-sighted and unconscionable.”
Tisdale further cites an apparent hypocrisy, noting that community planning group members must submit Conflict of Interest Forms. “Did the Red Tape Task Force members do so?” she asked, also speculating whether some Task Force members may have direct financial ties to major energy projects in East County. A proposal to toss out the Resource Protection Ordinance has also been denounced by Tisdale and numerous other local planning group members.
The Boulevard Planning Group opposes either termination or “neutering of community planning groups in any way, shape or form.”
The County has been far from a model of transparent government regarding its Red Tape Reduction process.
Californians Aware sued San Diego's Supervisors this month for casting votes on December 7 to pass some of the Red Tape Reduction Task Force's recommendations--without bothering to notify the public first.
After the lawsuit was filed, the County agreed to reverse the vote and take public input at the February 29 meeting. Eliminating planning groups was not among the items voted on in December (Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Priced managed to postpone action on that item). But it will be on the agenda February 29. So will other equally controversial proposals
Here's what some other local community leaders are saying about this scheme.
“People will never hear about projects until after they’re done if this [elimination of planning groups] goes through,” Mark Ostrander, chair, Jacumba sponsor group, told ECM.
“We think laudable goal of reducing red tape should not be used as excuse to eliminate democratic processes and citizen input, along with environmental protections, that are at the heart of conserving our county and preventing it from further sliding into the LA syndrome,” wrote Diane Conklin, head of the Mussey Grade Road Alliance, in a letter sent to Supervisors. The citizens’ group in Ramona has written a letter to Supervisors urging opposition to the elimination of planning groups, the Resource Protection Ordinance and more.
Ray Lutz, founder of Citizens Oversight Panels, a government watchdog group in East County, also opposes any reduction in planning groups’ power—and offers some alternative ideas.
“I'd like to see the authority of the planning groups increased, not eliminated,” Lutz informed ECM. “For many parts of the county, particularly in the backcountry, these groups are the only place the community has to meet and discuss issues.”
He adds, “If they are eliminated, those same areas should start planning clubs to help the community with their planning and any other issues. This county is far too big with too little representation. We have about the same population as the State of Iowa. But they have 99 counties. We have 1/99 the representation with Supervisors that are 99 times more likely to be corrupted by big money influences.”
This isn't about whether you're for or against a specific project. A development that one community rejects, another may embrace and welcome. But shouldn't that be the right of those who live in the local community to decide? Or at least be informed about and offer suggestions for improvement?
I join with concerned citizen watchdogs, public officials, editors, and residents across East County in urging the public to sign the petition and show up to voice your views at the February 29 meeting. Developers will no doubt turn out in force to argue in favor of cutting not just "red tape"--but our voice and the voices of your elected planning group members throughout San Diego County's unincorporated areas.
If you care about preserving citizens' rights to be informed and have input on projects in their own communities, please sign this petition asking Supervisors to save community planning groups. Share this information with others. Then contact your Supervisor--or better yet, all five Supervisors, to let them know that taking away the voices of the people is intolerable and unAmerican.