By KAREN VELIE
An anonymous San Luis Obispo County Planning Department employee filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that a department supervisor was assigned to a project that her husband’s employer was developing. The whistleblower also charged that upper management waived thousands of dollars in fees for that same development.
“I believe there are two serious issues of unethical behavior by upper management in the department of planning and building,” the whistleblower writes. “An unauthorized fee waiver in the amount of $14,000 and a conflict of interest by a planner working on a case involving her husband’s design firm.”
In 2019, CJ Rudolph — working with RRM Design Group — filed a site plan application to construct a 6.6 acre recreational vehicle and boat storage facility on Heritage Road near Nacimiento Lake dubbed Snug Harbor. SLO County assigned Lacey Minnick as the project manager. Minnick’s husband Jake Minnick works for RRM.
In September, one of Lacey Minnick’s staffers reported that Minnick had admitted to having a conflict of interest based on her husband’s employment.
“He also said that his current supervisor, Lacey Minnick, had told him that she was up to 2 in the morning working on a project getting ready for the commission, but that she was not supposed to work on the project because the agent for the project was from her husband’s firm,” according to the whistleblower complaint.
The whistleblower then pulled the Snug Harbor case file and discovered that conditional use permit fees had been waived by SLO Planning Department Assistant Director Rob Fitzroy and Environmental Coordinator Xzandrea Fowler.
Along with the complaint, the whistleblower provided an email Fowler sent telling the developer that she had decided not to charge him the approximately $21,000 cost for a Conditional Use Permit, because he had already paid $6,295 for a site plan application.
Site plan reviews are required for projects that involve consideration of more than Zoning Clearance, the SLO County department for building and development web page explains. “Site plan review considers the greater effects these uses may have upon their surroundings, and characteristics of adjacent uses that could have detrimental effects upon a proposed use.”
Conditional Use Permits allow “a city or county to consider special uses which may be essential or desirable to a particular community, but which are not allowed as a matter of right within a zoning district,” the governor’s office of Planning and Research states. Permit applications are approved under a set of conditions after consideration of a number of factors including the zoning of the property and the impact of the proposed project on surrounding areas.
In order to waive fees, the project must have a public benefit. In addition, a fee waiver over $5,000 requires the SLO County Board of Supervisors’ approval.
In the complaint, the whistleblower notes changes in case type, such as from a site plan application to a conditional use permit, are based on county time and include increased fees.
A little more than a month after the project was changed from a site plan application to a conditional use permit, the project was approved by the planning commission on Sept. 24. And even though the appeal period was supposed to run for 14 days following the approval, the appeal period concluded in five days on Sept. 29, according to the county website.
Eight requests for comment to staffers at the SLO County Planning Department and representatives of RRM Design Group were unanswered. A county official did confirm, however, the whistleblower’s complaint is under review.
SLO County fee screen for Snug Harbor
Whistleblower complaint details
“I believe there are two serious issues of unethical behavior by upper management in the department of planning and building,” the whistleblower writes. “An unauthorized fee waiver in the amount of $14,000 and a conflict of interest by a planner working on a case involving her husband’s design firm.
“I am currently physically working in the office while most of our staff are telecommuting. On September 24, 2020, one of our new employees who started in March, shared that he had successfully presented at the Planning Commission.
“He also shared that his current supervisor, Lacey Minnick, had told him that she was up to 2:00 in the morning working on a project getting ready for the commission, but that she was not supposed to work on the project because the agent for the project was from her husband’s firm. I found this extremely odd that this supervisor would share this type of information.
“I looked in the case file in Energov (DRC2020-00142) and found that the fees were not correct. There is a note in the fee screen that states, ‘Adj. to fee amt charged on DRC2019-00099. Do not charge CUP per Rob F.’
“I then looked through the virtual file folder and found the file for DRC2020-00142 imbedded in the case file DRC2019-00099 which is not the correct procedure. In this file I found an email from Xzandrea Fowler, see attached, which gave the applicant a reduced fee.
“Land use permit fees are based on the amount of time the case takes to process. This particular case is called a Conditional Use Permit which is the most complex and is reviewed by the County Planning Commission. It is not uncommon to need to make changes to case types after an initial intake or to add additional fees.
“The county fee schedule does allow fee waivers. There is a precise process that an applicant must go through. See attached fee waiver request form. Xzandrea Fowler is currently the staff member who reviews and approves fee waivers so she absolutely knows she does not have the authority to reduce an applicant’s fees.”
Xzandrea Fowler email to CJ Rudolph