Heuberger at helm of county projects

January 08, 2001|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

Few county jobs are as public or have the potential for affecting the county economically as much as that of director of planning and building.

The job can be thankless and all too controversial when people don't get their way.

Despite this, the job is thoroughly enjoyed by Holtville resident Jurg Heuberger.

"I enjoy the challenge of doing land-use planning," he said. "It's a challenging job that I like."

He's been in the position since 1985.

Heuberger's job is to oversee the functions of the Planning/Building Department and its staff in implementing the county's general plan, land-use ordinances, permitting, conditional use permits and parcel and tract maps, among other responsibilities.

The department's responsibilities include processing California Environmental Quality Act documentation, implementation under contract of the state's underground storage tank program, implementing the state's mobile homes park act and the airport land-use commission.


Heuberger, 51, also is the executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission, chairman of the county's environmental evaluation committee and a member of the county hazardous materials committee.

With such a workload, the department has its challenges, including a number of vacant positions that have proved hard to fill, and continuous and ever-more restricting changes in state law. The department has four vacant planner positions, a vacant planning division manager position and a vacant building inspection position. The department has been short six staff members for about three years.

"Probably the greatest challenge is just trying to keep the workload going and projects going through quickly and efficiently and still meet all the mandates so we don't get sued or sued as often," Heuberger said.

He thinks salary, the location of the county and a good economy in other parts of the state are the underlying problems with recruiting needed help.

"That's caused quite a work-load burden," he said.

That workload can sometimes lead to criticism of the Planning Department, although the department does have its supporters.

Mike Cameron of Cameron Construction in Holtville said the degree of professional service available at the Imperial County Planning Department is comparable or better to what one receives at planning departments in Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties and Yuma.

"I've always found them to be pretty helpful," Cameron said, adding Heuberger "runs a pretty tight ship."

Cameron has been chairman of the Building Department board of appeals since its inception about 25 years ago. He said there have been few appeals during the last 20 years, and said he is not aware of any appeals board decision taken to the county Board of Supervisors.

"I think (Heuberger's) very fair. He'll follow the rules; he's not one to deviate from the rules," Cameron said. "I just think this guy's a remarkable person. Personally, he's been very helpful to me over the years."

Criticism of the Planning Department and Planning Commission were central to the 1998 campaign of District 1 Supervisor Tony Tirado, who said the county still suffers from job and economic development stagnation.

"The needs of the county must still move forward and diversify," he said. "To achieve that we must respond to those needs. Stagnation is still there. We have to facilitate and overcome obstacles, without violating the law."

When asked to comment specifically on what he thinks of the Planning Department under the guidance of Heuberger, Tirado said, "He is an intelligent, bright individual."

Tirado is the incoming chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

The outgoing chairman, District 5 Supervisor Wally Leimgruber, said the county is fortunate to have Heuberger as planning director.

"Jurg is a detail-oriented director," Leimgruber said. "He, as well, is very meticulous in respect to the plans his department approves."

Bob Ham, executive director of Imperial County's Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business said his organization has no beef with Heuberger, but there are concerns with the Planning Department in general.

"Jurg is probably as knowledgeable and capable as they come," Ham said. "He certainly understands the role of a planning department and is knowledgeable of (California Environmental Quality Act) law."

Concerns are unfilled staff positions, the lack of privacy when discussing projects in the Planning Department offices and a perceived lack of friendliness toward customers, according to Ham.

Ham said the staffing problem is a COLAB priority, that the lack of privacy is a "physical plant" problem and customer service survey forms, upon return, should go to the county executive officer instead of back to the Planning Department.

"Our hope is that they will figure some way to fix these things," Ham said.

Heuberger was asked what his department does to ensure customers are treated equally.

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