In the 2010 book Thrive—the book “that put SLO on the map as the happiest city in America”—author Jim Buettner recounts how in the ’70s the city transformed a stagnant “reactionary” business community controlled by just a few powerful land owners and business leaders into an “American planning renaissance.”
Buettner uses this period of transition to show how, with citizen participation, the city’s focus shifted away from creating the perfect business environment to one that focused on quality of life.
Though the city flaunts Thrive on its website and other promotional literature, citizens involved in a process to update critical policies are attempting to keep that “progressive” trend going. For the average resident, studying proposed changes to a city’s general plan is as exciting as jury duty, despite the fact that the document is essentially the blueprint of how that city will look in 20 or so years.
The City of San Luis Obispo is currently in the thick of just that; a process that comes up every couple of decades. SLO is conducting what they call a “focused” update of two components of its General Plan, the Land Use Element (LUE) and Circulation Element (CE), which will provide guidelines for development and transportation issues citywide for the next 20 years. While the LUE directs the general location and intensity of residential, commercial, and other development, as well as open space and other land uses, the CE is specifically concerned with setting policies and goals pertaining to how people move around the city.
The budget for the update—roughly $870,000—is funded mainly from state grant funding from a 2006 voter-approved Proposition 84, part of the state Strategic Growth Council’s Sustainable Communities, Planning Grant, and Incentive Program. An additional amount of about $300,000 has been budgeted from city coffers to pay for an environmental impact report in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act.
An all-volunteer citizen panel—the Land Use and Circulation Element Task Force—will preside over a series of workshops and public hearings on the update, and presumably provide feedback that’s representative of the population as a whole. It’s filled with volunteer members of the business, real estate, and environmental communities, as well as representatives from neighborhood groups.
It includes current and former planners such as county planning commissioner Eric Meyer; Cal Poly Department of City and Regional Planning Chair Hema Dandekar; and recent appointee, former city planning director and current planning commissioner Mike Multari. Reps from the local business and real estate community include architect and SLO Greenbuild member Chuck Croster; real estate attorney Dave Juhnke; real estate broker Chris Richardson; business attorney and SLO Builders Association member Jon Goetz, also a sitting board member of the Economic Vitality Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce; designer Chamber of Commerce and Obispo Beautification Association board member Pierre Rademaker; and developers Rob Rossi and Matt Quaglino.
Neighborhood- and area-specific representatives include Save Our Downtown’s Russell Brown; Residents for Quality Neighborhoods (RQN) President Sandra Rowley; Sierra Club and RQN member Carla Saunders; and League of Women Voters of San Luis Obispo County Director Sharon Whitney. The environmental community is also represented by Sierra Club and Land Conservancy member Walter Bremer.
The process so far has focused on public outreach, including surveys and community workshops. Staff has since taken that data and incorporated it into what they call a Legislative Draft, where changes in old language in both the CE and LUE are presented with a strikethrough, and new language is presented with an underline.
The task force recently completed its seventeenth meeting, where the body had its first chance to review new language, specifically in the CE. Of note, staff proposed to change the word “should” with “shall” in many clauses. While that may not sound like much, some residents have pointed out many instances where it makes a big difference.
In Policy 7.0.2, which deals with controlling traffic from businesses in nearby residential neighborhoods, the old policy states: “The City should not approve commercial development that encourages customers, employees or deliveries to use Residential Local or Residential Collector streets.”
In the Legislative Draft, that language has been changed to: “The City shall not approve development that impacts the quality of life and livability of residential neighborhoods by generating traffic conditions that exceed the thresholds established ... New development shall incorporate traffic calming features to minimize speeding and cut-thru traffic.”
This is just one substantial revision; there are far too many to list in this article.
Concerns have been raised over the way the process has gone down from the beginning, namely from environmental advocates and neighborhood groups. When the task force was officially created by a vote of the city council in January 2012, the council decided to delete just one of 10 directives—the one that said it “should have equal representation from the environment, neighborhood, and business communities.”
If any one group feels they are getting the short end of the stick, it may be because of how the process occurred the last time the two elements were updated, in 1994. In that year, when the city began to draft an update to its LUE, it initially formed an “Economic Task Force” without an accompanying environmental body. The city soon realized the error of its ways, with the help of groups such as the Sierra Club. The result of including environmental interests is commonly accepted as having had a positive, balanced impact on the update, and led to many victories for the environmental community, including the city’s roughly 6,000 acres of open space, and the creation of the position of natural resources manager.
As in 1994, that same coalition of environmental interests and neighborhood groups is seeking to balance the influence of the chamber of commerce, the Economic Vitality Corporation, and the real estate community, which have each been involved since early in the process.
Finally, the issue has also been raised whether both the CE and the LUE are compatible with each other following the proposed revisions—if altering one affects the other more than vice versa—or if the task force is reviewing the process out of order. It will meet once more on the CE in October before it moves on to revisions to the LUE.
The task force is tentatively scheduled to continue reviewing the policy revisions in the Legislative Draft through November, and is expected to present those latest changes to the public at a Dec. 7 community workshop. Its next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 2 in City Hall, where it will continue discussion on the circulation element. In mid-February 2014, the task force will undergo training on the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), and by May will begin to receive community input on the project’s environmental impact report.
The group will conduct a final review of the draft EIR before issuing its official recommendations to the planning commission on May 17.
The public can keep informed on the process by visiting slo2035.com.
News Editor Matt Fountain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.