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Local planning group members and residents voice concerns over stifling of powers for communities and heavy influence of developers

By Miriam Raftery

December 12, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – By a 5-0 vote, San Diego’s Board of Supervisors this week unanimously voted to  place limits on the powers and influence of community planning group and sponsor group members.   

The action follows recommendations made by a developer-stacked Red Tape Reduction Task Force, which had sought to eliminate planning and sponsor groups completely.  Supervisors previously voted to retain the groups, but make some changes.  But changes approved this week are sparking concern and outrage among many local planning and sponsor group members, as well as the public that they serve.

One local planning representative is even calling for a ballot measure to shift power from Supervisors back to local planning group members and the people in rural communities.

Among other things, this action prohibits planning/sponsor groups from appealing county approval of any development item not within their district’s boundaries. So if the county approves 500-foot-tall wind turbines, a power plant, or a large housing project that could have impacts in an adjoining districts such as noise, traffic or groundwater usage, no appeal from impacted neighboring districts will be allowed. 

In addition, planning and sponsor groups are no longer allowed to make direct requests to project applicants for additional studies including further analysis of project impacts or mitigation. Instead any such requests must go to the County project manager, who will decide whether such mitigation is necessary.

Under the new rules, planning and sponsor group members may no longer send complaints or concerns directly to state or federal agencies or entities. Instead, they must direct correspondence directly to county officials, though they can send copies to other agencies or elected officials.

But how effective would a mere cc be, as opposed to a letter to one’s Congressional  or state legislative representative, or to a state agency such as the Public Utilities Commission, requesting that the official or agency take a specific action?

The action drew a bristly response from some local planning group members. 

“I will accept NO restriction on whom I speak to, contact, etc.,” Alpine Planning Group member Lou Russo wrote in an e-mail to ECM.  “As a former Marine officer, I did not give up my rights as a citizen when I accepted my commision and I sure as hell didn’t when I was leglaly elected to a planning group…nor as a legally elected member of a fire board.” 

Planning groups may still discuss items outside their boundaries (though some wanted to muzzle even that right) but the county has taken away the legal teeth for planners to take action, other than notifying the county about their concerns. 

“If they don’t like the agenda items local boards address, then they can get out of the Couhty Board room and have their meetings on a rotating basis throughout the County,” Russo retorted.

Supervisors did vote to retain the current process for naming chairs of planning and sponsor gorups.  Other restrictions were imposed to limit county liability, such as making indeminification against legal action contingent on members attending training and not having multiple legal actions against them. (Ironically in recent years there have been more legal actions taken against Supervisors than planning group/sponsor group members, though there seems to be no similar restriction imposed on Supervisors.)

Next up, Supervisors will soon consider whether to further dilute local community voices by allowing non-residents to serve on planning groups.  Some boards have not had enough candidates to fill vacancies, so the option of allowing property owners such as local business owners to run or be appointed will be considered.  Rural residents have voiced fears, however, that this could open the door to developers who own land taking over local boards, essentially having foxes guarding the henhouse.

That drew a barbed response from Tony Eason of San Marcos, who left this blistering post on the Ranter’s Roost, a backcountry forum on land use issues. 

“The BOS (Board of Supervisors) seems to be contradicting themselves,” he said, noting that on one hand,  Supervisors seek to prevent input from community planning groups within the sphere of a project’s influence in a neighboring district “because they supposedly aren’t affected by it”  while on the other hand, Supervisors are considering “allowing people (read, developer backers) who don’t even live in the area involved, to serve on the planning group. If the planning groups from nearby communities can have no input, why should outside residents have a say?”   

Eason added, “This BOs seems to be swinging whichever way the wind blows without consistent, serious thought given to the far reaching effects and the fairness of their decisions.”

Nancy Slaff , a Campo resident who has served on the Lake Moreno/Campo  Community Sponsor Group subcommittee on community character, wrote, “How can they suggest to the planning groups that they cannot reach out to officials in other government agencies---such as inquiring of or talking to their local elected officials about mega projects that will impact their communities …I find it odd that at the County level they can just arbitrarily remove other—higher entities—from our field of contact without first having cleared the way.”

Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents East County, offered the following clarification.

“Regarding planning groups reaching out to agencies other than the county, see p. 2 of the `Errata 2 Attachment.’ See also Item 4, Errata 2  One section reads: “Because planning and sponsor groups exist to advise the County, a planning and land use matter that does not require County of San Diego approval may be discussed if properly noticed, but the only action that the group may take is an action to advise the County of the group’s perspective on the issue.”

Planning groups can still discuss “a planning and land use matter that does not require County of San Diego approval” Schmidt noted, adding, “I’m told the County wants to make sure, however, that it remains in the communications loop.” 

Supervisors made some changes, noted in the errata above, to the initial changes proposed to I-I policies regarding planning and land use groups.

But that’s not enough to satisfy many current and past planning group officials and members of the public, whose comments have been sizzling across the Internet on local discussion forums in the backcountry this week.

Lael Montgomery, a Valley Center Planning Group member,  also denounced the “escalating steps by the Board of Supervisors to weaken community planning groups and further facilitate the desires of developers/campaign contributors,” adding, “I, too, wonder whether this continuing disempowerment will awaken the masses?”

Montgomery decried the fact that “County Supervisors have complete power over land use decisions, evidently. Three votes can do whatever they want to do…..I am not an attorney but I understand now that the ONLY enforcement of California planning law is through citizen litigation. So unless the citizens dig into our jeans to finance litigation—residents have no power over the destinies of our communities . Developers can do whatever the Board of Supervisors allows them to do.”

Bob Robeson, a retired Cal Fire Chief in Lakeside, questioned what Supervisors justification was for such action and how they plan to enforce the new restrictions.  “First Amendment Rights should prevail on this.” 

Terry Francke, legal counsel at Californians Aware (CALAWARE) told ECM, "My guess is that the restrictions you refer to violate the First Amendment," but added that he wants to review the language and any county analysis before drawing a firm conclusion.

A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union also voiced concern over potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech.

"It’s one thing for the County to decide how to structure its internal governance and planning process. It’s quite another to restrict the free speech rights of planning or sponsor group members," David Blair Loy with the San Diego chapter of the ACLU told ECM. "If the County is purporting to restrict the right of individual group members to speak out or control the manner in which they communicate with other agencies or elected officials, the County is crossing the First Amendment line."

A board member or chair would have every right to contact elected officials and agencies, as long as they make clear that they are speaking as individuals and not reflecting the County's views, Loy added in a phone interview today.

Montgomery suggested one remedy could be for citizens to mount a ballot initiative to change the County Charter so the community planning groups would not be empowered by Supervisors, but instead directly by the Charter—a costly effort that would be opposed by developers and Supervisors, she noted.

“The people COULD win…but it would take broad-based community support to do it.”

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I tried to tell people while i was running that the plan was to kill the CPG's! Sad San Diego got fooled by Richpublican poli-tricks! Now we the public will be left with almost no voice at County level!!! I will run again to try and fix this misrepresentation of American rights!