Gary Armstrong will be leaving his position as director of planning for San Benito County after nearly three years on the job. Armstrong, who came to San Benito from the private sector, will be taking a position with the City of Costa Mesa as the economic and development services director and assistant CEO.
“We lived in the Newport Beach area for many years,” Armstrong said, of himself and his wife who relocated with him from Southern California. “Two of our three boys still live in the Newport-Costa Mesa area in mid-Orange County. We have a lot of family and friends down there.”
Armstrong joined the county in 2010 after the retirement of the former Planning Director Art Henriques as the county descended into a prolonged economic downturn.
“I don't think any of us were prepared for it to be as long and as deep as it was,” he said.
His department went from 17 employees to 8 employees, and major developments stalled as housing developers waited to see if the market would rebound.
During Armstrong's tenure he said his remaining staff stayed busy as they guided the county through a general plan update that is nearing completion, with a public comment period that ended May 14. With his official last day set for May 31, Armstrong will leave behind the job of responding to the public comments to the remaining staff members. But he said depending on the number of public comments, the general plan update could be approved by the end of summer.
“It will be good for the county because I know some developers have been waiting for a new general plan before they submit,” Armstrong said. “There is a lot of new planning law that came from the state that some developers feel will be favorable.”
One of Armstrong's other tasks when he was hired was to streamline the permit process for property owners or developers and to change the historical perception that working with the county planning department is difficult.
Daniel Dungy, a former San Benito County Parks and Recreation commissioner, said his experience working with Armstrong was positive as the commission worked through creating a facilities master plan.
“What I appreciated was the fact that you approached your position with a team attitude, that we could all work together to make this a better place to live,” Dungy told Armstrong in an email upon hearing of his resignation.
Dungy said Armstrong treated everyone equally.
“We want to welcome people and focus on customer service by being responsive,” Armstrong said.
As planning director, Armstrong has also worked with staff members on revising several ordinances in the county, including those for affordable housing, signs and agriculture exemptions.
While he prepares for his departure, the county's potential for development is beginning to look up. The county has several residential projects that are on the horizon, including Santana Ranch, Fairview Corners and San Juan Oaks, with Santana Ranch the furthest along in the process. Eathbound Farms and Chiala Farms are both looking to add or expand agricultural facilities in the county, while a winery, equestrian facility and the resource recovery park are still early in the process.
“Many of those may take a year or more to go through the process,” he said. “It takes a while for it start flowing, but it's a start. We are seeing some of the economic opportunities the supervisors would like to see here.”
When Armstrong arrives in Costa Mesa to start his new position in June, he will be overseeing many of the same services such as planning and code enforcement for a city that has a population of 110,000 residents.
“It's a smaller area,” he said. “It's not big, open fields so they are going up.”
He said two of his adult sons live in the area, with his youngest still in college at California State University, Fullerton.
Armstrong is also looking forward to being in closer proximity to a Baja California hunting club of which he is the president.