Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie confirms she'll resign at today's meeting

Controversial county Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie confirmed this afternoon that she is resigning at the end of today’s meeting.

Without going into details, she said during a break that her resignation would be “gracious and honest.”

An appointee of District 5 Supervisor Jim Patterson, Christie has been a lightning rod of criticism from pro-growth and development advocates for most of her five-year tenure on the commission.

The Creston resident’s resignation will follow a vote that may or may not consolidate five existing general plan elements — historic, esthetic, conservation, open space and energy — into one document to be known as the Consolidated and Open Space Element.

Christie has been called a transparent breath of fresh air by her supporters, and politically biased by her detractors. Her track record includes opposing the Hearst Ranch conservation easement prior to joining the commission; opposing development of the Santa Margarita Ranch on the grounds that 11 environmental concerns couldn’t be mitigated; opposing new gravel mining in the Salinas River on environmental issues; and, more recently, spoke out against large solar installations on the Carrisa Plains.

Members of a pro-property rights group called the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business has been vocal in asking for Christie’s resignation.

Charlie Whitney, a Santa Margarita-area cattleman who chairs the Santa Margarita Area Advisory Council, is a member of COLAB. When told of Christie’s impending resignation, he said, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

County land-use observers say Patterson and Christie are sharply divided over the issue of utility-sized solar arrays being built on the Carrisa Plains — Patterson in support, Christie opposed. Rumors have been flying around the County Government Center for months that Patterson wasn’t happy with Christie’s performance and that he planned to replace her after the first of the year.

That doesn’t cut it with Whitney. “I don’t give Patterson any credit for something he should have done four years ago.”

Patterson didn’t return requests for comment left on his cell and office phones.

Although Whitney credits Christie with being “brilliant when it comes to land-use regulations, (but) she didn’t listen to other commissioners. She knows her stuff but has a very narrow focus.”

Christie works as a legislative analyst for the California Coastal Commission.

Karen Merriam, chairwoman of the Santa Lucia chapter of the Sierra Club, said in a Tribune Viewpoint that COLAB has been “relentlessly calling for Christie’s removal — at public meetings, in op-ed pieces, and wherever else anyone will listen. COLAB represents interests that lost some influence when their friends were voted off the Board of Supervisors last year. They want back what they lost.”

Last spring, responding to several anonymous complaints, the county’s civil grand jury released a report dealing with the Planning Commission. The report criticized commissioners for not understanding their duties. Titled “Examining Planning Commissioner Conduct,” it didn’t name the commissioner, but the particulars of the report leave little doubt that it was Christie.

The grand jury cleared Christie of charges that she had used her position to promote personal environmental goals, and called her extensive knowledge of land-use issues “desirable in any planning commissioner.”

“The jury said the woman is brilliant and knows the regulatory world, but she should also know what due process and ex-parte communications (contacts with interested parties held outside formal hearings before a decision is made) are all about,” said Whitney.

The grand jury recommended that the Planning Department and County Counsel educate commissioners about ex-parte communications, conflicts of interest and their roles in general.

But the central issue that may have brought about Christie’s resignation is the plans for solar plants on the Carrisa Plains.Although the projects appeal to “green” sensibilities supporting renewable energy, Christie and various environmental groups are opposed to an industrial power source being built on sensitive habitat containing endangered species.

Robin Bell of the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy said in a Tribune letter to the editor in August: “Sarah Christie’s suggested revisions to the Hearing Draft of the New Conservation and Open Space Element made me hopeful we would adopt policy ensuring renewable energy goals did not compromise important environmental sources. However, at the Planning Commission hearing, Chairperson Christie was not the environmental bulldog we know and love.

“In collusion with Pacific Gas and Electric Co., solar companies have amassed an army of operatives to further their interests (on the Carrisa Plains) … The silencing of Sarah Christie is part of the bigger plan, the fleecing of San Luis Obispo County.”

Bob Cuddy contributed to this report.