As SLO mayor race heats up, Harmon and Gurnee fight over affordable housing, development

As tensions mount in a fight over San Luis Obispo’s future nearly two weeks from election day, mayoral candidates Heidi Harmon and T. Keith Gurnee are taking taken shots at each other’s campaigns.

The hotly contested race largely has centered around city growth, housing and traffic congestion.

Harmon, who’s running for re-election as San Luis Obispo mayor, accused Gurnee of running a “disingenuous campaign.” She called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” for having ties to the development community while promoting himself as a protector of neighborhoods and the environment.

But Gurnee said Harmon has “no understanding” of his background and work. He said the mayor is part of a City Council that conducts “social experiments” with negative consequences for the community.

While their criticisms are focused on ideologies and agendas, the shots seem to diverge from Harmon’s calls for civility and Gurnee’s vow to stay “above the fray” — while attempting to sway a voting pool that appears divided by age and occupation.

Harmon’s campaign has received financial support from community members including Cal Poly employees, working professionals and business owners, while Gurnee has received campaign donations from a large number of retirees.

Both sides have cited vandalism and thefts of election signs. Gurnee said he has reported those incidents to police.

Local news matters

We rely on readers like you more than ever before to support us as we tell stories about the people and issues important to SLO County readers.

Subscribe to The Tribune today for just 99 cents for your first month — and help ensure we can provide strong local journalism for many years to come. #ReadLocal

“Emotions are running high on all sides of this,” said Nick Andre, a campaign consultant for Harmon. “I think this is a more contentious race than the one I worked on for Jimmy Paulding for county supervisor.” (Paulding, a liberal, ran a hotly contested race against Supervisor Lynn Compton, a conservative.)

Developer ties

One of the key issues under debate is Gurnee’s career working for developers.

Harmon said her challenger, who’s running under the slogan “For Our Neighborhoods,” is misrepresenting himself as a protector of the environment and open space.

She cited Gurnee’s ties to a local group that’s seeking to reform how the California Environmental Quality Act is administered at the county level, having submitted a 19-page document of recommendations.

The CEQA Working Group includes Gurnee and prominent developer consultants Sophie Treder and Carol Florence, as well as Andrew Hackleman, executive director of Home Builders Association of the Central Coast.

The group recommends eliminating the county’s environmental coordinator position as the gatekeeper of applying CEQA law, charging the county director of planning and building with that responsibility and streamlining the time frames in the process for development applications, among other tweaks.

Harmon believes those changes would strip county leverage for adequately reviewing laws designed to protect the environment.

Harmon also said that Gurnee has worked on behalf of the the Las Pilitas Quarry proposal. She believes the proposed gravel quarry would be detrimental to the town of Santa Margarita, cutting away at mountainsides and sending a stream of trucks rumbling through town.

“(Gurnee) has made money directly or indirectly off of development,” Harmon said. “But to pretend to be an anti-development protector of the environment is disingenuous. ... That’s a project that has no benefit to the community.”

In response, Gurnee said that most of his work as a consultant has involved public projects, including downtown and waterfront improvement projects in Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, Venice Beach and Santa Rosa. On his campaign website, he says he’s helped preserve more than 120,000 acres of California land as permanent open space.

Gurnee said his participation in the CEQA Working Group was aimed not at changing state environmental law but, rather, helping make the process “fairly, effectively and efficiently administered.”

“I don’t think Heidi understands what I was trying to do,” Gurnee said. “(Harmon’s campaign) is just throwing stuff left and right at me to see what might stick.”

He said that the law has been applied unfairly at the county level — citing one example in which a home located more than a mile away from Highway 101 was determined to be a visual impact in the proposed Laetitia Agricultural Cluster housing project in Arroyo Grande.

Gurnee argued that the quarry project would benefit the environment because it would provide a local supply of materials for countywide paving that wouldn’t require hauling in aggregate from outside, reducing truck travel while supplying a needed resource.

The San Luis Obispo City Council is looking to improve bicycle commuting and make city streets safer for cyclists. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

‘Social experiments’

As examples of the so-called “social experiments” that the City Council has been carrying out, Gurnee cited the council’s goal to increase commuter bike ridership to 20 percent.

“To think that we’re going to make 20 percent of the population ride bikes,” Gurnee said. “Even cities that have made this a huge priority don’t come close to approaching that kind of ridership. This council is not thinking about the consequences.”

Gurnee also mentioned the Anholm Bikeway Plan, which removes some street parking between downtown and Foothill Boulevard for protected bike lanes, and a $2.5 million Laurel Lane road improvement project that featured wider sidewalks, new crosswalks, more parking and fewer driving lanes.

He believes that development projects approved by the council, including a controversial housing development on Palomar Avenue, cram too many people into neighborhoods without enough parking, affecting quality of life.

Gurnee said such moves by the council will bring increased traffic and parking problems.

A rendering of the planned new San Luis Ranch development. RRM Design Group

Housing affordability

Housing affordability also has been a hot-button issue in campaign forums.

In Harmon’s first term as San Luis Obispo mayor, she voted to approve two major housing projects, Avila Ranch and San Luis Ranch. Out of 1,300 total homes, a combined 135 are deemed affordable under the city’s inclusionary housing program, meaning they are restricted based on income levels.

Projected price estimates are between $350,000 and $600,000 per home for San Luis Ranch, and between $250,000 and $700,000 for Avila Ranch. But the ultimate price tag is unknown.

“Creating more affordability is my No. 1 goal — more access and more affordability,” Harmon said. “Right now, even some people with head-of-household jobs, doctors and business owners can’t find housing in SLO.”

Because of the city’s desirability and surrounding open space, Harmon said, “I’ll never be able to afford a home in SLO.”

Harmon supports tiny homes and home-share programs, in which people reside in bedrooms of houses with extra space, to help achieve affordability.

Gurnee said the problem of home costs in coastal California is not new, but he doesn’t believe it’s a good idea to add tiny homes in neighborhoods because they will negatively impact quality of life, with extra noise, congestion and parking challenges.

Gurnee suggested requiring that new home developments be sold to San Luis Obispo residents, rather than investors, for long windows of several years to keep costs down.

Gurnee also wants Cal Poly to take quicker action on housing on campus, helping free up more homes in the community.

In its draft Master Plan update, the university has called for housing 65 percent of its students on campus. With the opening this year of the new freshman living community, Cal Poly now houses 40 percent of its students on campus.

“Cal Poly needs to make some serious headway on its Master Plan update,” Gurnee said. “(The planning) has been going on for years. They need to make it happen.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune