Planning Commissioner Christie steps down

Controversial county Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie resigned Thursday, saying “special interests” have succeeded in undermining her authority.

An appointee of 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.

“Unfortunately, the manufactured controversy that has been fomented by a small group of special interests has succeeded in (creating) a self-implementing myth that I am not fit for public service,” Christie said from the dais before praising her fellow commissioners.

In a statement later Thursday, Patterson said he requested Christie’s resignation, saying he and his appointee shared a vision for the county but differed in ways to accomplish it.

Patterson has appointed Atascadero resident Dan O’Grady, a member of the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee and former Atascadero planning commissioner, to succeed Christie.

Patterson denied charges that the decision to ask for Christie’s resignation was politically motivated.

“If that were so,” Patterson wrote in the statement, “the change would have been made months, if not years, ago. Sarah and I share many goals for our county that we both care passionately about. We do, however, have very different ways of pursuing and accomplishing those goals. … I’ve concluded that having a new approach on the Planning Commission will benefit the county.”

A polarizing figureChristie 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 before 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, opposing large solar installations on the Carrisa Plains.

Members of a pro-property rights group called the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business have 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.

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 in August 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,” Whitney said.

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.

Solar power differencesThe 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 wrote 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 that 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.”

Staff Writer Bob Cuddy and Assistant City Editor Stephen Curran contributed to this report.