HMB Planning Director Liebster resigns


Posted by
Thu, July 6, 2006

Half Moon Bay Planning Director Jack Liebster has resigned his position. His last day will be July 31.  In his resignation letter to city manager Debra Auker, Liebster said, “The long hours, magnified by the long commute, have taken a toll, and I look forward to a chance to recharge and retool, and spend some much-missed time with my family. “

UPDATE: City Manager Debra Auker says that it will take about three to four months to fill the position and that she will ask the city council whether it wants to use an executive search firm to fill the position. An interim director will be appointed until the position is filled. The city manager will fill the position and the amount of input from the community and city council is yet to be determined.

As Chair of the HMB Planning Commission, I would like to wish Jack all the best and thank him for the many extra hours he has put in for the City over the years.

The job of Planning Director is extremely grueling. One is constantly being lobbied by applicants to expedite their pet projects through the approval process. In many cases, politically-connected people apply all sorts of pressure in an effort to short-cut the protections of the state’s environmental laws.

The Planning Department if often criticized for delaying the project, when in fact the City’s professional planners are simply performing the job of due diligence that is required by law.

The following is a perfect example:

Kevin Lansing

The “politically-connected people” Kevin Lansing refers to in his July 7 post must refer to me. Mr. Lansing’s included a URL hyperlink to my letter in last week’s Review.

My complaint with the Planning Department under Mr. Liebster, and with the help planning Commissioners like Mr. Lansing, is that projects of all kinds within our community from home improvements to major infrastructure renewal projects have been held hostage by politically motivated actions.

Mr. Lansing, for example, has taken a special interest in the El Granada pipeline. Although he has not come to any CCWD water board meetings to voice his concerns he has contacted the county’s Planning Department with questions and complaints about the final phases of the project. Part of the project will be built outside the City limits and under the County’s permit authority.

This project went through a rigorous approval process and a CDP was first issued on Jan. 28, 1999.  Cupp appealed the project to the City on Feb. 9, 1999 and was elected to the CCWD Board of Directors along with Coleman and Wittrup in Nov. of 1999. That is when they exercised their election privilege, as advocates of no-growth, to request a finding by the Coastal Commission that sidelined the project on Jan. of 2000.

That action began a lengthy and costly process of resolution that included all three new Directors, Cupp, Coleman, and Wittrup moving out of the community and the election of Chris Mickelsen and myself to the CCWD Board in Nov., 2001. We immediately moved to put this project back on the agenda of the Coastal Commission for dispute resolution. The Coastal Commission resolved the dispute on Dec. 10, 2003; the Coastal Commission ordered the City to reissue the CDP.

Lansing is part of the political faction in this community that attempts to thwart projects no matter how vital they may be to the well being of the community. This sad and costly story is just one example of his misguided sense of public responsibility. Unfortunately there are many others. The victims of these politically motivated actions prevent people from repairing a deck, fixing a fence, or flying a model airplane. Not everyone has the resources of the Water District to pay lawyers and experts to oppose these efforts.

The cost for the delays caused by the Cupp appeal was greater than $300,000 paid for by every customer of the CCWD water district. The construction price index (CPI) for the region is hovering today around 3%, so a one-year additional delay of the two plus million dollar remaining phases of the El Granada pipeline project adds at least $60,000 to the project costs.

The process had no short cuts; quite the contrary. Starting the process again as Liebster and Lansing would desire and recommended is an abuse of executive power.

Jim Larimer

  Kevin Lansing writes:

“...the City’s professional planners are simply performing the job of due diligence that is required by law.”

  How can the City’s professional planners perform the due diligence required by law on the Ailanto application for a Terrace stoplight, if the settlement agreement compels them to recommend approval, regardless of their actual opinions?

  Short answer: They can’t.  The settlement agreement destroys the public oversight protections our professional planners are employed to exercise.  Why? 

For the benefit of the readers, I’m not going to try to correct all of the false statements and distortions in Mr. Larimer’s post. 

The bottom line is that several of the CCWD directors seem to be of the opinion that their pipeline projects are exempt from having to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and the California Coastal Act. They are mistaken. 

Jack Liebster has over 30 years of professional planning experience. Readers can make up their own minds about whether Jack or Mr. Larimer is correct about the application of the law.

I’m glad to see that Mr. Larimer has discovered Coastsider’s blog just at a time when there is a discussion of who constitutes moderates and who the extremists are.

Note that Mr. Larimer’s language gives no quarter to legal processes or the people who must follow them. It’s all very simple for Mr. Larimer. Because Kevin Lansing insists on following the law when making decisions, he is accused of being part of a political cabal trying to “thwart projects” which Larimer says are so beneficial that they require no scrutiny whatsoever. The brief article above is about the resignation of Mr. Liebster, but it serves Larimer’s purpose to tar Lansing with his ad hominem brush.

As Larimer said in his Review article last week, he didn’t dispute the planning department’s right to call for further studies on the El Granada pipeline, just the need for the studies, which calls into question the motivation for doing so. To Jim Larimer, you are a “no-growther” if you are concerned enough about the integrity of the process that you will conduct a proper study and risk slowing things down.

Why might Liebster et al be concerned with a new CDP when all that work was done in 1998? Perhaps it has something to do with the absence of any studies related to the occurrence of Red legged frogs in the vicinity, confirmed by the finding on the Nurserymen’s Exchange property. Was that a known fact in 1998? No, is the answer. Knowledge of that would make most bureaucrats nervous about massive digging in the area. Instead of dastardly motivation, maybe Director Liebster wants to cross all of the t’s and dot the i’s.

But that’s the nice thing about attacking someone’s motivation, or a whole bunch of people’s for that matter, you can’t see it or touch it, but you sure can sense it, especially when everything is black and white in the first place. And if you are a property rights extremist, you believe that people should be able to do anything they want to and with their property. If we fell prey to this kind of logic, there would be no community standards and no need of a planning department, planning commission, or of the Coastal Commission. What do you think Half Moon Bay and vicinity would look like now if these checks had never been put into place?

ken king

Kevin Lansing and Ken King ignore the simple fact that the El Granada pipeline project was fully vetted in Jan. 1999. Every environmental study, every waiting period, every procedure required by California and Federal law had been completed. Because they do not like the outcome, they want the process to be repeated.

The City of Half Moon Bay has the right to require more studies and they did. That study confirmed the conclusions of the prior study completed more than six years ago. The issue has always been whether or not more studies were needed. The Coastal Commission ruled in December of 2003 that a CDP should be issued. They did not require more studies.

These issues here are not comparable to boys asking their mothers repeatedly for a cookie before dinner until she finally gives in. The studies Lansing and King desire are expensive and the delays they create add real risks and real costs to the community at large. Responsible government must act; it must not contemplate until every hunger has been finally satisfied.

Jim Larimer

I feel Mr. King has hit the nail on the head. When the enviornmentalists began using the city planning department, the planning commission, as well as the Coastal Commission to do their dirty work, then the original purposes for these august bodies of ethics had been forever bent. The only way to kill these snakes now is to abolish them and start over.
Richard Simoni

Richard, “dirty work”, “ethics”? If I’m not mistaken the City Council and the Planning Department of HMB requested an EIR (Environmental Impact Report)for the the El Granada Pipe Line and CCWD continued to assert that a negative declaration was all that was necessary. I believe the California Coastal Commission agreed with the City and the appeal of the project.  My own motivation as a Commissioner was never to stop growth or bend ethics to meet some individual agenda but to follow a plan for growth and , within that plan, adher to the policies of the Land Use Plan and the Local Coastal Program which protects the communities of the Californial Coast from inappropriate development and the preservation of ESHAs.
You may think that starting over and “killing those snakes” will change outcomes and allow immediate buildout but you will find that the California Coastal Commission is watching the actions of the City and will appeal decisions that do not meet the mandates of the Coastal Act.  The entire City of HMB is within the Coastal Zone and , as has been proven in court,the Coastal Commission has authority over any and all ESHAs within the City’s boundary. People like Kevin and Jack Liebster added ethics to the process not the reverse. lani ream

I know this won’t stop the distortions and untruths, but here goes.

According to Mr. Larimer:
“...the El Granada pipeline project was fully vetted in Jan. 1999. Every environmental study, every waiting period, every procedure required by California and Federal law had been completed.”

This is false. Phase 3 of the pipeline project (the most complex phase which involves numerous environmentally sensitive areas) still requires two separate Coastal Development Permits (one from the County of San Mateo and one from the City of HMB)

The applications for these CDPs are currently in the processing stage. The results of recent biological studies inform the analysis of the assigned planners. No public hearings have yet been held for these CDP applications in either the County or the City.

Before any CDPs can be issued, both the County and the City must ensure compliance with the California Coastal Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, and both state and federal Endangered Species Acts. By law, any approvals issued at the local level may be appealed to the California Coastal Commission.

What is correct in Kevin Lansing’s 6:47 PM July 9 statement is that the CDP’s are yet to be issued. What is not correct is that the studies have not been done. No more studies are required to issue the permits.

Jim Larimer

Jim Larimer discounts the fact that the Coastal Commission imposed a raft of conditions on CCWD’s El Granada pipeline project for environmental reasons, and that the local and county agencies have to comply with these conditions. The Coastal Commission’s official Staff Report said that CCWD had failed to prove the necessity for their large pipe, but approved it subject to a long laundry list of special conditions. This had nothing to do with no-growthers or environmentalists, btw, just CCWD’s inability to make its case after years of appeals.

It was the epitome of arrogance for Larimer to stand up at the last HMB city council meeting and berate Director Liebster and his staff for doing their jobs. It was also unprofessional, but it was done in the true spirit of black and white politics Larimer and his political faction practices.

ken king

In the July 5 issue of the local weekly, Jim Larimer wrote, “Planning Director Jack Liebster stated the water district agreed that the city had the right to request more studies. We do agree, but the issue is not the right to request more costly and delaying studies but the need for these studies.”

Here he writes: “No more studies are required to issue the permits.” It seems to me that this is his opinion, rather than the judgement of the permitting authorities.

Barry Parr states no rationale that justifies the requirement to repeat already completed studies for the El Granada pipeline renewal. The issues of protecting the environment, endangered species, archeological relics, etc. have not changed since 1999 when the original studies were complete. No old findings were changed nor where any new or changed circumstances revealed in the recently completed additional biological study required by the past City Council majority’s retiring Planning Director, Jack Liebster.

The motivation to demand more studies should be seen for what it is, a desire to delay, add to costs and otherwise impede a needed infrastructure replacement project. It makes no sense unless you believe that by wasting the public’s money you are accomplishing something of value. I don’t.

Jim Larimer

I’m saying that it’s not Jim Larimer’s call whether additional studies are required.

If the city requires you to do them, they are by definition required. I know this is a rather semantic argument, but the statement “No more studies are required to issue the permits” suggests that this is a settled matter, when it’s at the heart of the controversy.

I have no opinion about whether the city needs the additional studies to issue a permit.

Can HMB Councilmembers tell city planners what to recommend?

I had a meeting last week with Half Moon Bay’s City Attorney, Adam Lindgren, to explore this question.  Readers of are aware that the Pacific Ridge settlement agreement the City has with Ailanto (the developer) requires City planning staff to recommend approval of Ailanto’s Terrace stoplight application, regardless of their prior opinions that Pacific Ridge needed its own access, or the findings of the environmental impact report due out soon.  The 2004 agreement states simply: “The staff of the City shall recommend that the city approve this Terrace Coastal Development permit.”

Mr. Lindgren made a few points.  First, he emphasized that the City Council and Planning Commission can vote against the Terrace stoplight application, and even voice disagreement with the settlement agreement itself.  Second, although City planning staff are not free to recommend against the stoplight application, they can propose conditions to be placed on the application’s approval.  Third, there is factual precedent for the practice of a city’s elected officials instructing their planning staff how to recommend on a project’s application.  And fourth, the City Attorney believes that there is legal precedent supporting the practice.

When I asked for specifics on the third and fourth points, Mr. Lindgren said he could prepare a report and legal opinion on the subject, but only at the instruction of the City Council.  So I’ve asked our Councilmembers to instruct Mr. Lindgren to prepare the report, and make it available to the public.  It is an important subject for everyone, because just about all of us – sooner or later – will apply for some sort of planning or building permit.  The common-sense assumption is that the application will be evaluated by planning professionals solely on its merits, according to the applicable regulations and policies, without any political influence or directives from above.

Cities, especially small ones like Half Moon Bay, haven’t always had professional planning staffs.  There was a time when a citizen took his development proposal directly to a city’s elected officials, without having to deal with professional intermediaries hired to provide an impartial analytical evaluation of the proposal.  The problem with the old system was that elected officials didn’t usually have any background in public planning or safety, so poorly informed decisions got made.  Cities and their citizens learned the hard way that they needed staffs that were professionally trained to protect the public’s safety and welfare.  Those planners are still our first line of defense against bad decisions, and their hands should never be tied.

Jerry Steinberg
Half Moon Bay

The city attorney merely confirmed what Mr. Ferreira and I have said all along, that there are a number of ways the Settlement agreement can be modified or not implemented at all.

As far as getting the council to okay Adam Lundgren spending billable hours likely to run hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to satisfy Mr. Steinberg’s curiosity, I’d say, “Good luck!” There is, for example, the council’s laundry list of priorities that the staff, which includes Lundgren, is supposed to be working on.

ken king

Ken, Please re-read my comments on July 19, 2006 entitled:
“Can HMB Councilmembers tell city planners what to recommend?”

I had requested Barry run this as a story but he felt “this question, which has been argued endlessly in the comments already, I’d (Barry Parr) like to get some answers about what this provision of the settlement really means.”…AND SO WOULD I.

My July 19th post is my interpretation of what Adam verbally said to me at our meeting.
Since Adam has completed all the research and has reached a conclusion the preparation of this document should not require a great deal of time to complete.

The staff at the State Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors and the liaison with the California State Attorney General are presently reviewing my request for comments with the “Settlement Agreement” conflict with Rule 475 Code of Professional Conduct – Professional Engineering. They have advised me they will respond in the next 30 days.

Since the Draft EIR is due in the next 30 days and the City Manager is recruiting for a permanent City Planning Director it would be very helpful to all involved to have a firm understanding on this issue.

Jerry Steinberg
Half Moon Bay