When it comes to development, Santa Barbara is getting lost in the fog of an identity crisis, and the Planning Commission is growing increasingly frustrated by its current inability to provide a guiding light.

As a local struggle pitting small-town charm versus affordable housing heats up, the Planning Commission is still working on the introductory phase of updating the city’s General Plan — even though the process began four years ago.

Meanwhile, residents have begun making an end-run around the not-so-nimble city process. A preservationist group is collecting signatures to put a measure on the ballot asking voters to lower building-height limits.

(To see a detailed city map showing the existing limits, click here.)

Most Planning Commissioners criticize the city staff for bogging down the General Plan process with details, and for being overly concerned about getting buy-in from everyone. Several commissioners now have invoked Thomas Paine’s famous quote: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”

“There’s a fear of controversy and it has paralyzed the city’s process,” commissioner John Jostes said. “I think it’s happening because people are afraid to tell a story. That story is, ‘What is happening to Santa Barbara?’”

A general plan is a state-required document that must address issues of land use, housing, transportation and seismic safety, among other elements.

Santa Barbara’s plan was first adopted in 1964, and last updated in 1995. The last update took about three years to accomplish.

To date, six of the seven commissioners — with chairman George Myers being the exception — have grumbled about the slow process.

“I tend to be a like-to-get-things-done kind of person,” commissioner Addison Thompson said. “It keeps getting delayed and delayed. The longer you delay, the more changes are occurring (without the benefit of an overarching vision).”

For their part, staff members point out that the General Plan process was put on ice for 18 months ending last fall so they could focus their energy on studying an Upper State Street improvement project.

What’s more, said principal planner John Ledbetter, updating Santa Barbara’s General Plan is a more grueling process than doing so in most other cities, because Santa Barbara has an extra self-imposed element: growth management.

For instance, in 1989 voters approved a law, Measure E, that was designed to slow business growth. The measure sunsets in 2010 and city leaders must decide whether to bring forth another initiative.

Ledbetter also said the process is meant to be community-driven.

“We don’t want to cut the community out of the process for expediency’s sake,” he said.

Although most commissioners agree that the process is taking too long, their views don’t line up as neatly on a bigger question: What is happening to Santa Barbara?

In Jostes’ view, the high cost of living is taking a toll on the city’s workforce — a growing crisis that could one day prove disastrous.

“People are going to face a two-year wait on elective surgery because doctors can’t live in town,” he said. “I mean, that’s pretty frightening.”

The way he sees it, the community is divided into two camps.

“Some of the community wants to be just like we have been for the past 25 years: Single-family houses, quiet neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores here and there — status quo,” he said. “And another section of the community sees that the status quo is starting to damage the basic social infrastructure that makes Santa Barbara a great place.”

Meanwhile, commissioner Harwood White has publicly lamented the recent spate of taller buildings.

“We have a historic spike in oversized buildings, large buildings,” he said at a recent Planning Commission meeting. “If that continues for the next three years, then the horse is completely out of the barn.”

Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs is worried about another matter: Renters.

“The elephant in the room is almost 60 percent of our population is made up of renters, and they don’t come to forums — we don’t know what their concerns are,” she said. “A decision most people who are renting have to make is the decision to take an equal-paying job in some other city, where they can afford to buy a home, or stay in Santa Barbara and be lifelong renters.”

She said city leaders should think creatively about how to retain this population.

“Some cities have citywide free wireless — that would be kind of cool,” she said. “We have a lot of beautiful communal spaces — downtown, beaches, parks. All benefit renters.”

Jacobs, too, is annoyed by the speed of the process.

“We are spending too much time on our ‘what ifs,’” she said at a recent meeting. “I worry that we are not having enough confidence in our vision. Confidence should carry us through a lot of the fuzzy areas I think we are floundering in. We don’t need to do a poll on ‘What’s your vision.’ We know what that is.”

In March, the Planning Commission will hold a work session looking at land-use development trends. The date has not been set.

To learn more about the General Plan, click here. To visit an interactive Web site asking residents for input on current efforts to update the General Plan, click here.

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.