There’s a clear dichotomy in this year’s jam-packed, developing race for Pismo Beach City Council.
On one side, incumbent Mayor Shelly Higginbotham and council members Mary Ann Reiss and Kris Vardas tout a combined 36 years of City Council service and experience.
On the other, mayoral challenger Kevin Kreowski and council aspirants Marcia Guthrie and Sheila Blake have never served on the council, but they say it’s time to embrace a fresh point of view and give citizens new choices beyond the same old incumbents.
As has been the case for many years in Pismo Beach, the hot-button issue is development—exactly how much to approve and where to approve it.
“People in Pismo are aware of all these types of development, and most of them have an opinion,” Kreowski said. “The underlying problem is that the City Council has not been listening to the citizens.”
Kreowski has seized (as have Blake and Guthrie) on the controversial proposed Spanish Springs mega-development in Price Canyon as a wedge issue. They claim that by taking steps toward approving Spanish Springs, the current council (including the three incumbents) has proven itself to be out of touch with the majority view in Pismo.
Blake and Guthrie—both members of the advocacy group Save Price Canyon—have been a driving force behind the group’s ballot initiative, dubbed Measure H-14, which was sparked by Spanish Springs and seeks to preempt overdevelopment in Price Canyon. Kreowski said he aligns himself with Blake and Guthrie and fully supports the measure.
Guthrie described the measure—which she had a hand in drafting—as a “citizen-based initiative allowing voters of Pismo Beach to decide on large development proposed for Price Canyon.”
“I’ve gone door to door and spoken to hundreds of residents in Pismo Beach, and it has become abundantly clear that there is a major disconnect between the city government and its residents,” Guthrie said.
On the incumbent side, council members Reiss and Vardas declined to take a position on Measure H-14, saying they have mixed feelings about Spanish Springs. Mayor Higginbotham, however, said she opposes the measure.
“Measure H-14 is flawed and affects other areas in the city, not just Price Canyon,” Higginbotham told New Times. “Essentially, is this the best way to plan development? I do not believe so.”
“Spanish Springs is a really big project with significant impacts to Price Canyon,” Vardas said. “I did vote to approve the project’s environmental impact report, but we never voted to fully approve the project.”
Vardas added that, in his opinion, Blake was running “to stop development in Price Canyon because her house at the top of the hill has a view of the area.”
“She’s operating from a special interest perspective, and I will never do that,” Vardas said.
In response, Blake said that Vardas is just as much of a “special interest” candidate.
“If you want to talk about special interests, let’s talk about [Vardas’] support for developers,” Blake said. “You could call [Vardas’ employer] PG&E a special interest as well.”
Reiss said that her extensive council experience allowed her to “see the bigger picture, not just one or two issues.”
“My experience and my opponents’ lack thereof is the biggest difference between us,” Reiss said. “As far as Price Canyon goes, I’m not taking a position on the initiative, because the people are going to decide.”
Reiss has served on the council for 18 consecutive years, since 1996, and has served as mayor for six of those years. She’s also a real estate agent.
When asked to detail non-development issues that are important to her, Reiss mentioned keeping the city fiscally sound, initiating capital improvement projects, and updating the city’s general plan.
Vardas, also a senior planner at PG&E, has served on the council since 2006.
When asked about important Pismo issues not related to development, Vardas said he’s focused on protecting and expanding the reliability of the city’s water supply, protecting the shoreline and coastal bluffs, and alleviating traffic and congestion.
Higginbotham, who’s served on the council since 2004 (four of the 10 years as mayor), said she understands the commitment required to serve the citizens of Pismo.
Among the incumbent mayor’s stated non-development priorities: diversifying the city’s water supply, completing a strategic plan for the Chapman Estate, and maintaining high ocean water quality.
Kreowski ran for a council seat but didn’t win in 2012, has served in various administrative roles with the U.S. Border Patrol for more than 20 years, owns a local art gallery, and also serves on the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Beautification Commission.
When asked what non-development issues he considers important, Kreowski mentioned boosting cooperation among South County municipalities, promoting tourism, and managing the city’s water supply.
Guthrie has been self-employed in real estate and investments for 26 years, has served on the city’s Parks, Recreation, and Beautification Commission, and describes herself as a “fiscally conservative non-politician.”
When asked for non-development issues she considers important, Guthrie mentioned improving parking downtown and in Shell Beach, revitalizing downtown, and having a “frank and honest” public discussion about the city’s water situation.
Blake—who ran for City Council unsuccessfully in 2012—is a retired airline supervisor, frequent public speaker at city meetings, and a chief architect of Measure H-14.
Blake mentioned adding more parking, augmenting the city’s water supply, and improving the city’s network of streets to reduce congestion as vital issues she would focus on outside of the development sphere.
Though all of the six candidates have already pulled election papers, they (and any other potential candidates) have until Aug. 8 to make a final decision regarding their candidacies.
Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.