SLO City Council feud derails city’s General Plan for growth

The corrosive political relationship between two San Luis Obispo City Council members derailed years of effort and nearly $1.4 million spent to update the city’s General Plan on Tuesday.

The council’s decision to not override the Airport Land Use Commission made it impossible for the city to implement long-plotted changes to its General Plan — leaving both developers of future projects and advocates of the new plan in limbo.

Proposed developments emphasizing housing — such as the 131-acre San Luis Ranch planned for the Dalidio property on Madonna Road and the 150-acre Avila Ranch near the airport on the north side of Buckley Road — are now stalled.

The future of those projects and countless others in the city, including the planned Homeless Services Center on Prado Road, may now depend on the outcome of the Nov. 4 election.

On Tuesday, both Councilman Dan Carpenter and outgoing Councilwoman Kathy Smith voted against overriding the airport commission’s safety plan, which limits development in the southern section of the city near the airport.

A 4-1 vote of the five-member council was needed for the override.

With Smith’s departure at the end of her term, only one more vote in support of the override would be needed, and Mayor Jan Marx is hoping that vote will come with a fresh voice on the council after the election.

Swing vote

After Tuesday night’s kerfuffle, Marx continued the discussion to an undetermined date, which will allow the city to bring it back before the City Council once again.

“If this council does not have the courage to stand up to the Airport Land Use Commission to maintain authority over land use decisions in the city, then perhaps the next council will,” Marx said.

Carpenter, who was the swing vote, said he ultimately voted against the override because of politics on the dais stemming from a long-combative relationship between himself and Councilman John Ashbaugh.

On Tuesday, the feud was fueled by Ashbaugh’s reference to Carpenter’s actions in a closed-session meeting earlier in the evening — ultimately making Carpenter angry enough to vote against Ashbaugh’s desire to approve the override.

“Ashbaugh is a disgrace to this community,” Carpenter said Wednesday. “His inability to protect the confidentiality of our closed-session meetings exposes his lack of character and personal integrity. He continues to be an embarrassment to this governing body and should remove himself from it immediately.”

The result: The city is now in a holding pattern with a General Plan that is 20 years old, instead of having an updated plan with a new vision for the next two decades. Without the update, the city will also be unable to meet future state mandates for affordable housing.

Regrets a day later

On Wednesday, Ashbaugh said he regretted his conduct toward Carpenter at the meeting.

“I hope that Dan can find it in his heart to forgive me, but that is for him to decide. I hope, too, that the voters of San Luis Obispo will do so as well … based on an understanding that I was wrong and that closed-session matters are sacred and intended to remain confidential,” Ashbaugh said.

Marx said she regretted the situation.

“I feel it is very unfortunate and unprofessional in terms of both of them,” the mayor said Wednesday. “It is not how decisions should be made at the City Council level … not on the basis of personal animosity.”

The spat prompted San Luis Obispo resident and frequent council critic Kevin Rice to file a request that the city take disciplinary action against Ashbaugh for violating the confidentiality of the closed-session meeting.

On Wednesday, Carpenter admitted that he let anger get the best of him.

“My part in this is that I let him get under my skin, and I responded with a vote,” Carpenter said. “I could have made a decision based on facts instead of a decision based on emotions. … I may have still said ‘no,’ but it would have been based on the deliberations, not on emotion.”

Pivotal election

At the heart of the debate is the Airport Land Use Commission, an autonomous agency that drafts safety plans for the airport.

The 40-year-old plan, which the commission is in the process of updating, has carved out a safety zone that limits development in the southern section of the city for safety and noise


The council can override the plan with a 4-1 vote. However, the commission and the Caltrans Division of Aeronautics have hinted at legal action if the city does that — which was the topic of the closed session meeting.

Eric Meyer, chair of the city’s Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE) Update task force, said a major impact of not overriding the airport commission to approve a General Plan update is the potential loss of state and federal funding for future projects.

“This project was worked on by a large group of people with many compromises made,” Meyer said. “If you don’t like it, at least offer a solution in its place rather than tossing everything aside.”

Now, the Nov. 4 council election will be pivotal, Meyer said.

“We all need to make sure that the candidate we choose has ideas of how to proceed either way,” he said.

There are three seats up for re-election: the mayoral seat and two council seats.

Mayoral incumbent Marx and Councilwoman Carlyn Christianson are seeking re-election.

Of the five people running for council — Christianson, Daniel Cano, Mike Clark, Gordon Mullin and Dan Rivoire — all but Clark have said they would absolutely support the override.

On Wednesday, Clark said that having lived in San Diego and Cerritos where airplanes have crashed into residential neighborhoods, “I am inclined to err on the side of caution.

“That said, as a candidate, I have not been privy to the closed session(s) with the City Attorney and therefore do not know the legal ramifications or potential financial consequences facing the city if the council were to overrule the ALUC,” Clark said in an email. “I think it would be unwise to state a position before being able to have and consider this information.”

Business voice

At the council meeting Tuesday, Ryan Miller, owner of San Luis Obispo-based Web marketing firm Etna Interactive, said that because of a lack of available housing — something the General Plan update would have addressed — recruiting and retaining employees has been difficult.

On Wednesday, he repeated those concerns and said he was now worried that more attention would be focused on the personal and political differences among council members than on the shortage of affordable housing in the city.

“I think it is unfortunate that any elected official would put personal feelings and politics ahead of what is ultimately best for the community,” he said. 

“I really want to keep my business here, and I may have to make compromises to make that happen,” Miller said. “Last night’s LUCE update would have meant that I wouldn’t have had to make those compromises. Now I’ll have to consider if we can continue to grow in a city where there is such an absence of housing options.”