Ex-SLO planning commissioner says he was forced out unfairly over development views

Former San Luis Obispo Planning Commissioner Scott Mann feels he was forced out of his job over views on development within the city.
Former San Luis Obispo Planning Commissioner Scott Mann feels he was forced out of his job over views on development within the city.

A former San Luis Obispo planning commissioner says he was forced out of his seat in mid-November because of what he believes was a divide with two City Council members on how to address new development in the city.

Scott Mann said he worked diligently as a volunteer planning commissioner during an eight-month tenure to ensure proposed development projects were avoiding or mitigating environmental impacts to the city’s traffic, air quality, flood zones, biology and other issues under state law.

He worked on projects such as the 720-home Avila Ranch housing project off Buckley Road, on which Mann cast the commission’s sole dissenting vote for City Council recommendation. The City Council approved the proposed project in September, citing a need for additional housing to help alleviate the city’s housing crunch.

Council members Carlyn Christianson and Dan Rivoire, the council’s two liaisons to the commission, asked Mann to step down, saying the matter wasn’t personal or related to a specific project.

But they held a different viewpoint about whether Mann followed City Council and city General Plan direction, which are responsibilities of an appointed commissioner. Christianson emphasized that planning commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the council.”

“It’s a pretty common thing for a new commissioner to want a project changed,” Christianson said. “You want to see something changed, and you say that and well, that’s fine, but that’s not what law currently is. Generally speaking, he was supposed to be upholding the city’s General Plan, and Mr. Mann seemed to be struggling with his purview.”

Christianson said a commissioner’s role is to “interpret city policy rather than decide it” and Mann sought to set new city policy.

“I wasn’t being political,” Mann said. “I don’t feel my job was to be political. There are groups in town who feel we don’t need growth and can’t develop the city too fast. I don’t necessarily align with these groups. I just did not feel that the project met (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines or was timed in a way with infrastructure and service support to help our city advance or accomplish the General Plan.”

Mann, a 38-year-old project manager with a local architecture firm with a focus on sustainable building, was initially brought on in part to represent a younger voice on the commission. Mann volunteered to serve when two vacancies were announced last spring, and he was appointed by the City Council.

The city’s environmental impact report for Avila Ranch identified and addressed potential impacts the project would bring, and how best to avoid or mitigate them.

But Mann was still uneasy about the mixture of bicycles, pedestrians and industrial traffic on Earthwood Lane and a perceived lack of safety relating on the route to Laguna Middle School on South Higuera Street.

Mann also cited the potential for area flooding on Vachell Lane and Buckley Road and air quality impacts due to a nearby concrete manufacturing plant and the adjacent airport runway, among other concerns.

Christianson said she and Rivoire observed commission meetings and gathered feedback about Mann’s approach before asking for his resignation in early November.

“It’s unfortunate (Mann) had a negative reaction, but I’m confident things will work out in ways they probably should,” Christianson said.

Still, Mann disagrees with her assessment of his approach.

“When it came down to projects under our review, my decisions were based solely on my interpretation of current state and local laws,” he said.

“My passion isn’t for everyone,” he added. “But I was taking time away from family to spend a lot of time on this. Urban design, sustainability, architecture, that’s my background and my passion. I spent years and years studying and focusing in this area.”

Fellow commissioner John Fowler advised Mann it was probably best to step down.

Fearing his reputation could be damaged if he left the decision on his removal to a Planning Commission hearing, Mann formally stepped aside Nov. 15, 2017, he said. Mann was replaced by new appointee Mike Wulkan, a retired San Luis Obispo County planner who attended his first meeting Wednesday.

Correction: A quote attributed to San Luis Obispo Planning Commissioner John Fowler incorrectly stated a correspondence and has been removed. Mann sent an email on Nov. 7 to his fellow members of the commission, asking if “there are things I am doing wrong or if the other members value my voice and perspective on the commission” and inquired about “the level of support that I have from the commission for keeping my seat.” Fowler responded to Mann the same day that commissioners “serve at the pleasure of the council and if they asked me to step down, I would do so.”