In a move that promises to bring a planning commission back to Kern County, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 on June 17 on a measure directing planning staff to recommend ways to reinstitute the long-disbanded body. The decision was applauded by activists who had complained that the public had not received adequate notice of public hearings, nor provided enough input into projects in their early stages. The county's planning director also welcomed the decision, which he said would assist in exploring new policy directions, including the update of the county's general plan and a new system to rate the importance of agricultural land. County staff is expected to deliver a response to the supervisors on August 3. "It was a good policy decision to bring it back," chief of staff for Kern County Supervisor Jon McQuiston, who spearheaded the June 21 vote. "We are only one of two counties that did not have a planning commission, and the other county is 99% trees." The county disbanded its former planning commission in 1981 in the name of streamlining. In 1992, however, the county took the half-measure of instituting a seven-member "planning advisory board," to evaluate the San Emidio new town just north of Grapevine and subsequent major projects. The advisory board meets only occasionally to consider major projects. "With the growth that is continuing to occur, people want to know what is going, and they want to understand. They want more access to the process," said Ronald Brummett, executive director of the Kern County Council of Governments. In recent years, he added, there have been "several incidents, at the county and Bakersfield and COG (i.e. council of government) levels, where there have been projects about which people in the greater community wanted to have their voices heard, to be able to state their opinion." One "incident" that galvanized support for a planning commission was an amendment to the metropolitan Bakersfield general plan that won approval after a very limited public hearing. The property at issue was a 1,300-acre unincorporated area in the city's sphere of influence, known as the Coberly-Etcheverry property. County supervisors voted 5-0 in October to approve the change in land-use designation, which changed the zoning from agriculture to residential, and also certified a negative declaration on the requirement for an EIR. Despite his support for the general plan amendment, McQuiston proposed a motion in October, approved 5-0, that authorized the planning department to report back to the board on the advisability of reinstituting the planning commission. Craig Peterson, McQuiston's chief of staff, said McQuiston's decision was motivated both by a respect for a more inclusive public process, as well as a feeling that the supervisors were getting bogged down in examining the minutiae of projects. McQuiston, he said, had "wound up spending more time on Coberly-Etcheverry than he had spent on major problems, like our financially troubled medical center." The supervisor, Peterson added, "said his time should be spent on policy-making decisions, as opposed to handling planning-commission issues." Also supporting a new planning commission was a community group known as Smart Growth Coalition, which has a mailing list of 150 households. The group favors development in existing urbanized areas and opposes urban sprawl and leap-frog development but stops short of urban-growth boundaries, according to president John Fallgatter, a Bakersfield insurance agent. He said a planning commission was needed to facilitate public comments on projects. "We felt that the lack of a planning commission prevented adequate information getting to the public in a timely fashion. And so the real push was to allow more public input in to what was going on," he said. The existence of a commission, in fact, "helps the developer," he said. Rather than invest years of work in a project, only to see it killed by public outcry at the last minute, the planning commission process would include public hearings earlier in the development process, and allow the developer to make the changes that will render the project politically acceptable, according to Fallgatter. "The way it was structured here, a project got basically one shot in front of a public entity way down the road," Fallgatter said. Fallgatter was critical of the planning advisory board, however, saying it met too seldom to provide policy leadership in planning issues. "It typically met twice a year, if that often," he said. Maintaining consistent and complimentary policy is a badly needed role that could be filled by a planning commission, according to Fallgatter. County supervisors have approved major projects in unincorporated county areas, without regard to the metropolitan Bakersfield general plan, he claimed. "There was a 2010 Plan, and it has been chewed up. There is no consistency here," Fallgatter said. "The developer goes in and says. 'This is a crap shoot.' More often than not, they get their way. I am not knocking the development community. It's using the system as it is set up." The concept of a new planning commission is not universally supported. Earlier this year, the planning advisory board held four public hearings on the question of whether a planning commission should be convened, The county Planning Advisory Commission in May recommended against reinstating the commission, and forwarded a series of recommendations to the supervisors intended to improve the public-hearing process, such as earlier notification and expanding the radius of property owners to be notified beyond the 300 feet currently required by county law. The local Board of Realtors, an organization which often sides with the building industry in opposing development guidelines, holds that "county's existing planning staff and process are highly responsive to citizens' concerns, and do an excellent job of public outreach in general," according to Sheila Henderson, president of the group, in a letter to the Planning Advisory Committee. And, surprisingly, the Kern County Grand Jury, concluded in January that the county's method of evaluating projects was adequate and did not need a planning commission. Ted James, the county's Planning Director, seemed ebullient about the possibility of a more coordinated planning policy made possible by a planning commission. He said he was pleased particularly because the planning commission could participate in the upcoming update of the county's general plan. Part of that plan is to devise a policy about the preservation of farmland, which is one of the most debated issues in Kern County. James said one possibility was to emulate the "point" system developed by Tulare County to rate the importance of farmland. Properties that receive high rankings as prime "ag" land in a county "survey" remains zoned for agriculture. James said his recommendations to the board on the new planning commission would also propose some new guidelines on public-hearing notification, including an expansion of the current 300-foot limit on property owners to be notified. In addition, he plans to recommend different methods of appointing the planning commissioners, possibly allowing each supervisor to appoint one commissioner, plus an alternate commissioner to ensure a quorum. That approach worried Fallgatter of the Smart Growth Coalition about the commission's independence, however. "We don't want the planning commission to be a carbon copy of the Board of Supervisors," he said. Contacts: Ted James, director, Kern County Planning Department, (805) 861-2099. Ronald Brummett, executive director, Kern County Council of Governments, (805) 861-2191. Craig Peterson, chief of staff to Jon McQuiston, Kern County Supervisor, (805) 363-8463. John Fallgatter, President, Smart Growth Coalition, (805) 868-3650.