In a way, San Diego might be the anti-Petaluma. Instead of laying off all the planners like Petaluma is doing, San Diego is investing heavily in long-term planning as an economic development strategy.

I should say right up front that it's a bit unfair to compare a suburb of 57,000 people with a major city of 1.3 million. Still, the contrasting responses to difficult economic times is instructive.

As we have reported, the Petaluma City Council decided in April to eliminate the planners and disband the Community Development Department. The city manager and councilmembers described the decision as a temporary move driven by ongoing budget deficits and a significant drop in development-related fees.

"Advance planning is not something that I'm going to address at this moment," Petaluma City Manager John Brown told me. "I'm more concerned at this point in dealing with the current planning, making sure the people who come forward with projects are served."

Essentially, Petaluma is going to process applications and abandon long-term planning until the economy gets better. Clearly, this was a difficult decision to make.

San Diegans know all about local government fiscal problems. Back in 2003, it become public that the city had systematically underfunded its pension and health care obligations for years and was on the hook for more than $2 billion. Because prior years' financial statements did reflect the obligations, the city's bond rating fell and federal authorities opened investigations. Both the city manager and the mayor eventually resigned. That mess combined with the recent recession forced San Diego to eliminate about 8% of its 10,000-employee workforce.

San Diego's Development Services Department, which handles minor development project reviews as well as plan check and building inspection, recently cut 28 out of about 450 position. However, the city has a separate City Planning & Community Investment agency, which not only oversees larger discretionary projects, but also long-range planning, economic development, redevelopment and facilities financing. This organizational structure reflects city leaders' belief that land use planning is directly related to economic growth.

"We and the mayor have taken the attitude that this is a good time to plan so we're teed up when the economic recovery happens," explained Bill Anderson, who heads City Planning & Community Investment. "It is important for economic development to get the land uses and zoning in place."

After years of planning, study and haggling, the San Diego City Council adopted the City of Villages general plan last year. Implementation of the general plan requires updating of all 35 community plans. In his proposed budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, Mayor Jerry Sanders actually increased funding for community plan updates so that Anderson's department may work on 13 community plans simultaneously. Funding is coming from the city's general fund, redevelopment revenues, and grants from Caltrans and the San Diego Association of Governments, according to Anderson.

"We're trying to focus on comprehensive community planning," said Anderson, who noted that both business and environment advocates have endorsed the effort. Everyone's hope is that having updated community plans will eliminate the painful battles that have marked major discretionary projects during recent years and that have made desired infill development quite difficult.

Anderson declined to criticize Petaluma for narrowing the planning function down to application processing. He simply pointed out that issues surrounding quality of life and economic wellbeing never go away, no matter how little fee revenue a city is receiving.

– Paul Shigley