Politics & Government

‘Our city is at a crossroads’: SLO mayoral candidates clash over growth in forum

SLO citizens make their case for and against new bikeway plan

The San Luis Obispo City Council voted in favor of the Anholm Bikeway Plan on Tuesday after hearing citizens both in favor and opposed to the proposal.
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The San Luis Obispo City Council voted in favor of the Anholm Bikeway Plan on Tuesday after hearing citizens both in favor and opposed to the proposal.

Mayoral incumbent Heidi Harmon and challenger Keith Gurnee showed sharp divisions on how much growth is appropriate for San Luis Obispo in the campaign’s first full candidate forum Tuesday.

Gurnee took the opportunity to stress his refrain that the city’s current direction is “town cramming, not town planning,” while Harmon — who is wrapping up her first first term — said new “housing of all types” will help relieve the tight market and create a more diverse, demographically mixed city.

Other than clashes of ideologies, the SLO County League of Women Voters event marked a measured start to the campaign, which also includes a third candidate, multiple-time candidate Don Hedrick, that also covered transportation, energy choices, open space, among other topics.

The forum didn’t have the fireworks of the SLO Progressive endorsement meeting July 26 attended by Gurnee and Harmon. In that meeting, Harmon frustratedly ended the discussion and left the room, saying she was the only true progressive candidate (she received the endorsement from the group).

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“Our city is at a crossroads,” Gurnee said. “Are we going to grow and develop consistent with the character and essence of San Luis Obispo, or are we going to totally change that character? The direction this council is going is the latter.”

Gurnee said that if residents want 75-foot tall buildings, “exclusive” bike lanes through neighborhoods, parking constraints in the downtown area and a continued “war on cars” (with plans adopted to reduce road space for cars to make space for bike lanes) then “don’t vote for me.”

Gurnee, a longtime planning consultant, cited his experience and advocacy for neighborhood quality of life, saying he envisions a careful and tasteful vision for SLO’s growth.

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The audience at the San Luis Obispo League of Women Voters candidate’s forum Tuesday. Nick Wilson nwilson@thetribunenews.com

Harmon countered, noting she voted against the controversial 71 Palomar Ave. project because of its impacts on neighborhoods. She also supported two large development projects — Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch — and said she’ll continue to advocate for greater affordability and collaborate with Cal Poly to get more housing on campus.

“There are different ways to define growth, and a lot of times it means slow — or oftentimes what people really want to say is no growth,” Harmon said. “I think what’s really smart is we actively increase levels of affordability here.”

Harmon added that San Luis Obispo has more affordable housing (inclusionary housing for those who qualify with low incomes) in the city than the entire county combined. But she said she’d also work to provide housing for the “missing middle of working families, young professionals and seniors on fixed incomes.”

Harmon has supported initiatives to create bike and pedestrian transportation, including protected bike paths in the Anholm district. She also wants allowances for 75-foot buildings if affordable or workforce housing with local preference is included and regional bus partnerships to provide more frequent trips into the city.

As a climate action initiative, Harmon has supported plans for community choice energy, allowing local governments to increase purchases of renewable energies to generate power.

Gurnee vehemently opposed separated bike lanes through his Anholm neighborhood between Foothill Boulevard and downtown, as they will remove parking in place of physical barriers to protect vehicles from bikes.

He called for a light-rail system to help commuters from elsewhere in the county get to work, while citing an existing jobs/housing imbalance.

Gurnee decried the council’s decision to allow a limited night hiking program, which he said will disturb wildlife. He also called for Laguna Lake to be dredged, which has been planned for the past 30 to 40 years to restore depth and remove silt that clouds its waters. But the go-ahead for the multi-million dollar project has stalled, and Gurnee wants to make it a budgeting priority.

Hedrick, an artisan and frequent City Council public commenter, called himself the “perpetual candidate” having run repeatedly in campaigns since the mid-2000s.

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He spoke out against smart meters that record electricity consumption, believing they’re physically harmful devices to the community. Hedrick also believes the city is “packing and stacking” homes and also supports Laguna Lake’s dredging.

“It’s not in our best interest to cram people into the town,” Hedrick said. “We need some moderation in how we’re destroying our town’s image.”

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