George Buell
Community Development Director George Buell has resigned from the city. He is seen here, second from left, with City Attorney Ariel Calonne and City Councilman Oscar Gutierrez at a November site visit for a Funk Zone development project.  (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

The embattled director of Santa Barbara’s Community Development Department announced his resignation Thursday, effective in mid-July. 

“It has been an honor and pleasure to work in Santa Barbara,” George Buell said in a statement.

“Of particular noteworthiness is my appreciation for my dedicated colleagues, especially those in Community Development. Together, we have done a tremendous amount of good and the excellent quality of our work is world class.”

The resignation comes less than a week after Noozhawk’s investigative report into the behind-the-scenes workings of the department and pressure on City Administrator Paul Casey to make changes.  

Buell was appointed community development director in April 2014. 

In his letter of resignation, he said that he would be taking some time off and then work for an undisclosed local real estate development firm

“I thank George for his service to the Santa Barbara community and wish him well in his next endeavor,” Casey said.

The city will conduct a nationwide recruitment for a permanent replacement, and no decision has been made for an interim appointment.

Buell had been the fall guy for years of complaints from the business community over the sluggish pace of the building department and city permitting and approvals. 

The resignation came as Casey faced increased pressure to shake up the Community Development Department. 

State Street has long been struggling with storefront vacancies in the downtown core, and the issues have exploded in recent months with pandemic-related economic impacts to local businesses.

Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury report released June 2 stated that “a bias existed against growth in the city of Santa Barbara,” and “this bias was most evident in the delay in approval of permits.”

The grand jury determined “there is a lack of strong leadership at several levels, insufficient coordination and communication between the Building and Safety Division and the Planning Division, an impression of a slow-growth policy, inconsistent customer service and a fee structure which could be a deterrent to building development.” 

The report stated that city inspectors don’t communicate quickly and efficiently what corrections need to made to projects, which leads to multiple unnecessary visits, causing delays.

In addition, the report stated that city staff does not routinely hand out checklists at the beginning of the process, enforces building standards inconsistently depending on the staff member, and that many of the employees are newly hired, lacking knowledge, training and experience.

The grand jury report was just one of the recent hits to the department and city leadership.

The city in the past 18 months commissioned two consultant studies, at a cost of $86,000 and $84,000, which both confirmed what business leaders have been saying for years: The planning and building department is broken and in need of drastic changes. 

Buell oversaw a $12 million general fund budget and a staff of 77 in four divisions: Administration, Building and Safety, Housing and Human Services and Planning.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at jmolina@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.