Paul Casey, Santa Barbara’s community development director, credits the city’s intense review process for the community’s appeal. “People like it for its design, feel and small-town quality, and that doesn’t happen by accident,” he says.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s community development director, Paul Casey, is surprisingly easygoing for the workload he has.

At City Council and other public meetings, he assists his staff with presentations and answers questions readily, or sits in the back and watches the proceedings, with one arm stretched out on the back of the bench in a comfortable manner.

It’s a position of ease that comes from years of experience, a thorough knowledge of the subject material, and enthusiasm for the job.

As director and a 12-year employee of the Community Development Department, Casey knows his stuff. He oversees the building and safety, housing and redevelopment, and planning divisions, and is the ultimate authority on projects such as Plan Santa Barbara.

In this city, which implemented one of the country’s first design review boards after the 1925 earthquake, Casey’s staff’s work is a lot more high-profile than in other communities. Santa Barbara has a long history of regulations compared to other jurisdictions.

“People like it for its design, feel and small-town quality, and that doesn’t happen by accident,” Casey said of Santa Barbara. “We are an intense review process.”

Despite the city’s financial challenges, Casey’s staff has avoided layoffs so far, by reassigning employees to other departments and leaving positions vacant. He may not be as fortunate the next time around, however.

Casey credits City Administrator Jim Armstrong for setting a good example by supporting internal recruitment that helps people avoid losing their jobs entirely.

The slowdown of the economy has slowed the amount of new development projects coming through the system, but there are just as many — or more — enforcement complaints, he said.

Reorganization can only do so much, and with the next round of budget cuts, the department will have to prioritize its services and become more efficient.

It’s a logistical problem facing the entire municipal operation, and it has even resulted in Casey getting a new job tossed onto his plate.

The city administrator’s office has restructured and Casey is the new assistant city administrator of community development, meaning he’ll oversee the airport and parks and recreation departments as well as his own.

Beyond the budget “getting tight,” Casey and his staff are looking forward to the big issues of 2010: a “decision year” for Plan Santa Barbara, dwindling time left with the Redevelopment Agency, final say on the medical marijuana ordinance and some large development projects coming through the pipeline.

Many people are frustrated with how long it’s taken to update the city’s general plan, but there’s still work to do, he said.

The community is divided over some of the core issues — like land use, housing and transportation — and there needs to be some consensus before moving forward. Mixed-use building and building standards — like height, setbacks and maximum unit size — have been frequent subjects of debate.

“I think you saw that in the election, we’ve seen it in our forums and open houses, we’ve seen it in the survey we did, and we see it in public comment — all the time,” he said.

There is no specific deadline for completion, but 2010 should be a decision year; the draft environmental impact report, draft land-use element and draft housing element will be released in February and will trigger more hearings and public input.

The new City Council will be able to direct the process, which gives the Planning Commission the dilemma of how far to go with the current direction, since the new council could be out of sync with it. The next council is seated Jan. 12.

Another big part of the Community Development Department is the Redevelopment Agency, which will expire within five or six years. Santa Barbara’s RDA was created in the 1960s, making it one of the oldest in California. It was begun to improve the city’s downtown and waterfront areas, which badly needed attention, Casey said.

The growth of property taxes in the area can be used for capital projects, and funds have been used for all kinds of improvements over the years, like developing new parks and building affordable housing.

At this point, the RDA could only be continued if the city could prove “blight” in those areas — which is highly unlikely.

Policies and projects outside of the RDA have been hot topics lately — and the revision of the medical marijuana ordinance is at the top of the list.

Ordinance Committee suggestions have gone to the Planning Commission and a suspension ordinance has been adopted to stop proposals going through the system. There will be a lot more discussion of the details and ever-changing legal atmosphere in 2010.

Several large development projects will be working their way through the process as well, including a proposal for Elings Park. While it’s been said that further development of the south park area would provide financial assistance to the nonprofit foundation that operates the community park, there has been vocal opposition to the project, especially from the park’s neighbors.

Some other projects in the community development queue include Hillside House’s proposed expansion and the mixed-use development proposed for the area adjacent to the Arlington Theatre.

Each division of the Community Development Department deals with different programs and responsibilities.

Housing and Redevelopment handles RDA, rental and affordable housing issues, and its staff generally has backgrounds in project management and human services, Casey said.

Building and Safety staff handle the nuts and bolts of projects, including inspections and code enforcement, and appropriately often come from the construction trades.

Planning staff looks at more long-range projects such as Plan Santa Barbara and has counter people for general information about zoning and other requirements. They have all kinds of backgrounds, but many come from environmental, geography or planning areas, Casey said.

Casey himself has a public policy background, and studied economics and public affairs. Before becoming director, he worked in transportation for the city of Santa Monica and then as assistant community development director in Santa Barbara.

Although he’s involved in everything, Casey said he likes doing City Council liaison work — including briefing the new members — and working on planning issues.

“Santa Barbara is a great, wonderful town — people are passionate about its local government,” he said. “And I enjoy being in the middle of it.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at