Interim planning director picked

Brent Harrington

Brent Harrington to fill vacant spot

Calaveras County is looking for a new face to fill the director’s chair at the Planning Department on a permanent basis but an old face will do for now.

Brent Harrington will likely be named the interim planning director until a permanent replacement can be found.

Rebecca Willis announced her resignation as the department’s director in late August. In doing so, she joined a list of predecessors who have come and gone from the planning director position in recent years – six directors in seven years, to be exact.

“My experience working in other counties is that the job of the planning director is very difficult,” said Lori Norton, Calaveras County administrative officer, who was hired in May and has worked for a number of other counties and municipalities prior to her arrival in Calaveras. “In my experience, a high turnover rate in planning positions is not unusual.”

The Calaveras County Board of Supervisors met in closed session last week during its regular board meeting and discussed the appointment of an interim director to fill the position. Brent Harrington proved to be a natural choice. The appointment will go to an official vote of approval at Tuesday’s board meeting.

“It’s a good move for the county,” said District 3 Supervisor Merita Callaway, board chair. “He put the first general plan together. He knows how it works.”

Harrington has served the county in a variety of capacities over the years, including prior stints as county administrative officer and planning director.

“That’s one of the reasons why they brought him in as a candidate,” said District 5 Supervisor Darren Spellman. “He’s been the planning director for Calaveras. He knows all the players, in terms of the political spectrum and other departments. … He knows his stuff.”

Harrington will be taking the helm at a time when the ball is rolling on the county’s general plan update and officials hope that momentum continues.

“Any time you have a planning director change, I think you’re automatically going to be set back some,” said District 2 Supervisor Chris Wright. “Hopefully, it won’t really matter. … We still have consultants on hire who are diligently working on it.”

 “My goal is to keep the general plan moving forward,” said District 4 Supervisor Debbie Ponte. “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t think the general plan has stopped at all and it will continue.”

“The process is already in place,” Callaway said. “It’s moving forward.”

In the meantime, development projects are anchored to the previous general plan from 1996, which has caused problems for developers and the county over the years, including lawsuits.

“The state of California planning guide for all planners, the first page of the document is ‘Concerned Citizens vs. Calaveras County,’” Spellman said, citing a case brought against the county. “We’re the poster child of ‘Don’t do this.’”

“Our (existing) general plan is in disarray. It’s set up so many roadblocks for much of anything to happen,” Ponte said. “And then on top of that, you have the general economy, so it’s a double-whammy in many ways for the county.”

While many developers would like to see more projects pushed through, the county has been hesitant to act in the view of some.

“It seems like the larger the project, the more difficulty it has in getting to the planning commission for consideration,” said Gene Deaver, owner of Mother Lode Engineering in Angels Camp. “And I think it’s because of the fear of lawsuit. … It’s been very frustrating in the private sector.”

The existing general plan is no longer compliant with new state and federal legislation and many hope the new general plan will shore up the county’s legal defenses.

“We try to streamline (projects) and that’s a good thing,” Spellman said. “However, you can only go so far. At some point, you run up against state and federal mandates.”

“We’ve been knee-deep for 15 years trying to get this thing turned around,” said Dave Haley, vice president of the Castle and Cooke Calaveras development group. “And we’re not there yet. … I’m glad to see Brent Harrington come back on board. He’s a talented man.”

For developers and county officials alike, the general plan is priority No.1 for Harrington, who is likely to take over the interim role through the first of the year.

“(Harrington) didn’t necessarily need the job. He wanted to do it to help the county,” Spellman said. “As much as I hate to see Rebecca go, and I don’t like the fact she’s gone, I feel as good as I could knowing that Brent will be there.”

​Contact Stephen Crane at stephen.calent@gmail.com.

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