In November, Pismo Beach residents will decide whether to bring some new faces to their local city government, and three main issues can sum up the race: development, improving relations with neighboring governments and agencies, and—oh, yes—development.
But so far, the race has been relatively free of some of the negative rhetoric that’s plagued other recent and current city elections—at least in public.
As of press time, current Mayor Shelly Higginbotham is running unopposed. Current Councilman Ted Ehring isn’t seeking re-election. There are four candidates running for Ehring’s seat, as well as that of incumbent councilman and June 2012 District 3 county supervisor candidate Ed Waage.
Mayor Pro-Tem Kris Vardas and Councilwoman Mary Ann Reiss aren’t up for re-election this cycle.
This election is a big one for Pismo Beach, where a major controversial development project is slated to go before the council in December. The city is also facing a possible lawsuit over a dispute with the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Comission (LAFCO) regarding reimbursement of legal fees from another legal battle against developers, not to mention other recent disputes with Lucia Mar School District and the California Coastal Commission.
On Oct. 9, the Pismo Beach planning commission narrowly recommended approval of the Price Canyon planning area on the northern outskirts of town, which, according to city staffers, would bring in an estimated 1,500 new residents, as well as increase the city’s square mileage by roughly 50 percent.
The 1,264-acre planning area could become the epicenter for the Spanish Springs project, a major development some critics contend would further congest traffic, drain water resources, and burden city services.
The city is also in discussions on hiring a new city manager.
Single-term councilman and former city planning commissioner Waage couldn’t be reached for comment on this article, but he previously told New Times he’s proud of his accomplishments on the council over the last four years. Specifically, Waage pointed to his efforts in maintaining a surplus in the city’s budget—one of the few cities able to do so—protecting the ocean bluffs, repaving streets, and helping establish the city’s mosquito abatement program.
Waage, a retired emergency preparedness planner and chemistry professor, also said he has helped return a tone of civility and cooperation to the council—a tone he said was missing in action in previous years.
The incumbent faces opposition from challengers Erik Howell, Sheila Blake, Kevin Kreowski, and D.J. White.
Howell, a Harvard alum and 17-year member of the Lucia Mar School District’s board of trustees, told New Times he supports well-planned, “responsible” growth, and opposes annexations he says will end up costing the city in the long run.
He added that there’s a possibility of litigation resulting from the city’s refusal to approve a recently crafted settlement in Lucia Mar’s legal challenge to the city for not providing the district obligated funds following the dissolution of the city’s redevelopment agency.
“I think it’s extremely important that Pismo Beach honor its agreement with Lucia Mar,” Howell said. “Failing to do so will result in laying off teachers, bigger class sizes, and result in a weaker school system.”
Regarding Spanish Springs, Howell and Blake mostly agree, both having “serious” reservations with the project.
“The main duty of the city council is to protect the interests of current residents,” Howell said.
Blake, a retired airline supervisor and self-described “outsider,” is focusing her campaign on revitalizing the city’s downtown to complement the popular pier and beach area. She said she doesn’t support the Spanish Springs project, either, which she called “unnecessary” and not in line with the city’s general plan, contrary to arguments by some planning commissioners.
“This will essentially build another city—and residents will have to pay for it,” Blake said, adding that such a massive project should merit a city-wide vote. “It benefits nobody but the developers.”
Blake said she is not anti-development, but “anti-sprawl.”
She also said that in past years she has witnessed a degree of “apathy” in residents regarding participation in city government: “You could have 20 people come and speak against a project [the council] likes, and then two people speak in favor of it, but the council will only note those two.”
Kreowski echoed some of those sentiments. He served roughly 20 years with the U.S. Border Patrol and currently operates an art gallery and a pub in Avila and Shell Beach. While with the federal agency, he said, he oversaw multi-million dollar budgets. Kreowski told New Times he’s primarily concerned with economic sustainability and balancing coastal uses with environmental protection and preservation.
He said that as a former administrator of the agency—later in his career—he can bring to the council a perspective of increased cooperation with state and federal agencies, something he saw as lacking in the city’s (nonexistent) communication with the California Coastal Commission over seawalls built without coastal development permits—a decision that could open the city to a possible appeal and fine. He also added that the LAFCO dispute and Lucia Mar lawsuit left a bad taste in his mouth.
“It just doesn’t sit well,” he said. “Yes, [the budget] may be in the black right now, but you never know when you’re going to need your neighbors.”
Kreowski is also an avid waterman, and doesn’t like what he sees in Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposal to conduct high-energy 3-D seismic studies off the Central Coast.
“I understand there’s a need to do this [testing] but there must be a way to not harass the animals as much,” he said. “We just had the whales in here and now we’re going to risk it. I definitely have concerns, unless they can show to us that wildlife won’t be harmed.”
It’s notable that Pismo Beach has a habit of electing former planning commissioners—Waage and Ehring, for example—to the city council. White could keep that trend going. The current chair of the city planning commission told New Times he supports the Spanish Springs project, which he said is consistent with the city’s general plan and “was not spawned by the current city council.”
“I have no problems with the current city council,” White said. “We have a great working relationship. As far as the other candidates, what’s their experience?”
He also defended the city’s action on the seawalls project, arguing that the city had jurisdiction to make the improvements. He added that, as a planning commissioner, he has firsthand experience dealing with the coastal commission.
“They are not interested in talking with us. I’ve watched them and the complete lack of respect that they’ve shown us,” White said, adding that the city had to make a decision to protect residents from an impending sewage spill. “And if that happened, what would residents say about us then?”
Despite the clear differences between candidates, each told New Times that the race thus far has remained classy and professional—but the election is still weeks away. And White did tell New Times that somebody has been stealing his campaign signs in Shell Beach and the downtown area.
Polls open at 8 a.m. countywide on Nov. 6. Check slocounty.ca.gov/clerk/elections for more info.
Staff Writer Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.