Departing Community Development Director Grateful for Time in Morro Bay

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

February 16, 2024

Morro Bay Community Development Director, Scot Graham, is leaving the City for a job with Pismo Beach. Photo by Neil Farrell

In a staff full of relatively new leaders, Morro Bay’s Community Development Director, Scot Graham, was the seasoned veteran.

But now after over 9½ years with the City, Graham is leaving for basically the same job with another city, but one much closer to home.

“Yes,” Graham replied to a reporter’s attempt at rumor control, “I have accepted a position as the Community Development Director for the City of Pismo Beach.” It’s a “Similar position to what I am doing here, a little more money and less than half the commute…I live in Santa Maria.”

Pismo Beach’s City Hall sits on Matte Road east of Hwy 101 on a hill overlooking San Luis Bay — a million-dollar view really — and he’s been driving past it twice a day for nearly a decade. Pismo Beach isn’t a stranger to him either, as he came to Morro Bay from Pismo Beach way back when.

Graham, “joined the City of Morro Bay in July of 2014 as the Planning Manager,” the City said in a news release about Graham’s imminent departure, “after having worked in the City of Pismo Beach’s Planning Department for a decade.”

Cutting his daily grind behind the wheel by more than half (down from over 2 hours a day to less than 1 hour) means he can get back to his 99-year-old home and family sooner, too.

He explained that Michael Codron, a retired former community development director and planner with the City of SLO, has been filling in for Pismo as interim community development director. He and Graham will switch places. 

Codron was slated to be retained by the city council to be the acting community development director while they do a job search for a permanent replacement. (The council was to vote on his contract, paid at $84 an hour, at its Feb. 13 meeting.)

“I go there on the 19th,” Graham said, “and he comes here on the 20th.” He added that Codron is a good choice for the temp job as he’s very familiar with the complicated development process here. “He’s been around for a while,” Graham said. “He should be able to keep things afloat.”

Codron, a public employee retiree, was at Pismo for just a month, until they hired Graham. In Morro Bay, his contract runs until the City Manager, Yvonne Kimball, hires someone or up to a year (expiring Feb. 9, 2025). (The Public Employee Retirement System places limits on how much a retiree can work and get paid in such temp jobs.)

The search for Graham’s replacement has already started, according to Kimball’s report on Codron’s contract.

“He’s very qualified,” Graham said, “and knows the Central Coast.”

That seemingly innocuous statement though, gets at the heart of why Morro Bay’s development process is complex, perhaps even a little confounding.

Graham sat down for an exit interview with Estero Bay News, meeting in the Zen Garden at Top Dog Coffee on Main Street. He spoke about the importance of having clear guidelines in a town’s planning system. 

The Planning Department and its rules and policies in large part, “help determine a person’s investment in a community,” he said, adding that not having clear standards can deter that investment. “It goes a long way to help,” he said.

He came in with a goal of streamlining the planning process and believes they’ve made progress towards that end. “The process is convoluted,” he said, “and we’ve been able to streamline that somewhat.” 

He explained that much of the bottle-neck of the past was with upward communication — going from the planning commission to the city council and then the Coastal Commission, which often has the last say in local development projects, especially along the Embarcadero.

Now you go from the planning commission to the council and then to Coastal “and you’re done,” he said. “Unless the Coastal Commission makes a lot of changes.”

He credits a change in their City-Coastal Commission relationship — including a movement to solicit their input early in the planning process — with this streamlining.

The old bottleneck “created big delays,” he said. “It can make a project unbuildable,” because with development projects — time is money.

He lists completion and certification of the General Plan and the Zoning Ordinance as major accomplishments in his tenure. The General Plan was completed in 2021 and the Zoning Ordinance in 2022, but the Zoning part of the plan hit a snag. 

“We sent it to the Coastal Commission for certification,” he said, “And they sent it back with changes. We’ve been working with them on edits and it’s now back at the Commission for certification.” He expects that approval to come in March.

“It was a big lift for myself and Planning Manager Cindy Jacinth,” Graham said. “That was a lot of work and took a long time — and then COVID hit.” The pandemic’s effects on government and private business slowed everything down. “It was difficult to bring it to the finish line.”

Among the big projects he’s overseen is the 83-room Hampton Inn on Atascadero Road, the second largest motel in town. It helped that there was already a “hedge row” of trees blocking the view from the highway, eliminating one big concern with coastal developments — preserving public views of the ocean. “We also got Dog Beach,” Graham said. “There’re a lot of wins there.”

Dog Beach is a stretch of Morro Strand north of North Point Natural Area. It was owned by Chevron, but the Cayucos Sanitary District, SLO County, local conservation groups, Chevron and the City teamed up to get it and then bring it under the City’s purview. It’s slated to remain an off-leash beach for dogs in perpetuity.

He’s also proud that they got the update on the Housing Element of the General Plan approved in just a couple of days and praised the work of Amy Sinsheimer of Place Works, a consultant, for helping with that effort. 

As for bad projects, he can’t think of any. “There’s been no cringe-worthy projects,” he laughs. He does admit to having concerns about some of the projects the City has coming up like the big battery storage project and the offshore wind farms. 

Power plant owner, Vistra Energy, is butting up against growing opposition to its plans for the 600-megawatt Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) sited on the power plant property. 

The BESS Project’s Environmental Impact Report draft should be released for comments “within the next 30 days,” Graham predicted. “It’s starting to get ramped up,” he said of the project. But when the EIR is finally released, “I’ll be gone,” he said with a  sly smile.

The draft will be out for 60 days to take comments and, “I suspect there will be a lot of comments.” He anticipates the consultant, Rincon, to hold several public meetings on the DEIR at the Planning Commission getting it in late spring or early summer. 

But the BESS has another significant issue — a citizen’s initiative (Measure A-24) on the November Ballot that would lock in the existing zoning at the power plant (and waterfront areas north of Beach Street) and call for voter approval if any project must have a zoning change.

“If it passes,” he said, “you have to question whether the project goes through — they’d need a vote of the people, or Vistra could bypass the City under AB 205.”

Assembly Bill 205, signed into law last summer by the Governor, created a pathway for projects like Vistra’s BESS to ask the Energy Commission to intervene and take over permitting, if it is unable to win approval on the local level.

Graham confesses that no one knows what an AB 205 process looks like, as it’s never been done before, or what control the City would lose over the permitting. “They could take the permitting authority away from the City,” he said, “and give it to the State. We’ll have to see a project go through the CEC and come out on the other side. It’s unknown what the City’s role would be then.”

There’s another sticky question — “Does the State Energy Policy override the will of the citizens?” he asked. “I don’t have a great feeling of what’s going to happen. There’s a lot of angst in the community, because we don’t know what the CEC process is like.”

He said public relations still play a large part in developments, something he tried to explain to Texas-based Vistra. It comes down to “How well you tell the story?” Graham said. “It’s ‘How well do you inform the community.’”

He noted that Morro Bay has a very engaged citizenry. “You need to have a game plan,” he explained. “If not, then you get an initiative against your project.”

He’s also leery of the proposed giant wind farms being pursued by the federal government, with much support from State officials, which is also starting to see opposition build. Graham called the wind farms “a long-term play.” 

He said they will have to expand one of the harbor’s T-piers to accommodate the expected ships that will service the farms (the deep-water assembly port needed for the project can’t be built locally). And, he said no one is accepting the idea of widening or deepening the harbor’s navigable channel to accommodate larger boats.

He’s very grateful for his time here. “Morro Bay has afforded me and given me the experience; I can’t say how appreciative I am.

“I will always miss the people, the business owners, and the citizens.”

He’s grateful for the amount of engagement from citizens that he’s gotten. “It’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “I’m so much better of a planner and director” because of it.

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