As many City of Goleta residents know, the November 4 election will decide the direction of Goleta for the next two years and have consequences lasting far longer. With only about 40 days until mail-in voting begins, it is important for voters to question Goleta City Council candidates on a fundamental issue: How much power and discretion should Goleta’s General Plan give to the City Council and staff?
As many of us have learned, once created, cities must approve a General Plan, and then update it every 10 years. As we’ve also learned, a General Plan is “the official statement of a municipal legislative body which sets forth its major policies concerning desirable future physical development” (according to T.J. Kent’s 1964 book The Urban General Plan) and has been described as:
• A public guide to community decision making
• An assessment of the community’s needs
• A statement of community values, goals, and objectives
• A blueprint for the community’s physical development
Goleta’s first City Council adopted a General Plan after many public hearings. Some liked it, some criticized the final result. Two years ago, new council members Eric Onnen, Michael Bennett, and Roger Aceves won office. During their campaigns, they pronounced the Plan to be a good one that needed only some “tweaking.” After the election, a council majority of Bennett, Onnen, and Jean Blois, initiated a Plan review costing $500,000 over many months, including a substantial investment of planning staff time, multiple workshops, and several public hearings, initially on about 200 amendments.
Two philosophically different views emerged regarding the amount of “flexibility” to have in the General Plan. Some said Plan provisions should be broader, with more discretion given to staff and council to review projects, including some that would have been excluded under specific Plan guidelines. Others said that the Plan is like a Constitution and its specific provisions should provide assurances and certainty to residents and applicants, not be subject to the discretion of the council members or staff.
For an example of a change that can have far reaching and permanent impacts on the character of Goleta, consider the proposed amendment to convert agriculturally designated land to a residential designation. If approved, this amendment will apply to all of Goleta’s agriculturally designated land, including Bishop Ranch.
Originally, the Plan read: “Conversion of Ag Land: Conversion of agricultural lands as designated on the Land Use Plan Map to other uses shall not be allowed. Lands designated for agriculture within the urban boundary shall be preserved for agricultural use.”
The amendment that the council majority advanced to the next step is more discretionary, opening the door to development on all remaining Goleta agricultural parcels. It reads, “Conversion of lands designated for agricultural to urban or other nonagricultural uses should only be permitted where site specific studies demonstrate that such conversion will not result in a significant loss of opportunity for local viable and economically feasible agricultural production. Conversion may be allowed when site specific analysis shows that conditions do not exist that would create, support or otherwise sustain viable and economically feasible agricultural production.”
People advocating for flexibility argue that otherwise worthwhile projects should not be stopped by a rigid guideline, and that planners should have powers to consider whether positives might offset negatives for a given project.
Supporters of the original Plan say that more flexibility always means less protection for the public, never more protection. They further note community members cannot afford to hire lawyers, experts, and advocates or appear every time a project comes up the way that developers can, so flexibility creates an un-level playing field. And they argue that a clear, mandatory rule gives developers, staff, and the public predictability, thus speeding up the process and reducing wasted effort for everyone.
Those supporting the original Plan also point out that it already has sufficient flexibility. By law, a General Plan can be amended up to four times a year. If exceptions are really needed for a particular project, the council could consider it, with notice to all parties.
Though this discussion might seem a bit dry, many similar amendments will finally be decided by the new council after November 4. These changes will determine who will have the power and discretion to shape Goleta: city residents, the City Council, staff, or developers.
Mail-in voting begins in just a few weeks. Goleta residents have a great opportunity now to ask council candidates where they stand on past and future Plan amendments that give more discretion and less direction to council and staff in reviewing projects to come.