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Planning Director reflects on time spent in the very special place that is Turlock
Debbie Whitmore
Debbie Whitmore, pictured here receiving the Employee of the Month award at the Nov. 14 Turlock City Council meeting, ended her 36-year planning career at the City of Turlock on Friday. - photo by Photo Contributed

The City of Turlock said goodbye last week to one of its biggest fans. Turlock’s Planning Services director for the past 11 years, Debbie Whitmore came to the City because of its unique vision and she leaves confident that the Valley town will continue to be an example of what good planning can accomplish.

“The City of Turlock is a very special place and I don’t think people really appreciate that. Sometimes I think they’ve been here and lived here for so long that they don’t understand its specialness. The reason I wanted to work in Turlock is because from a professional standpoint, it has such a wonderful planning history and reputation. It’s just a well-planned city. The planners that had worked with the community, and more importantly, the policy makers — the city council members and the planning commissioners — really valued planning and valued the expertise and the knowledge of the planners that were working for them. They worked together to create a vision for this community that has actually materialized,” said Whitmore.

Whitmore ended her 36-year planning career at the City of Turlock on Friday. Before coming to Turlock, she worked for Stanislaus County, the Stanislaus Council of Governments, as a private consultant, for the Southern California Association of Governments and Caltrans.

When she first arrived at the City of Turlock, former Planning Director Michael Cooke showed her a presentation of a General Plan created in the 1960s, shortly after Highway 99 was moved to the western outskirts of town. The City laid out a strategy that kept the downtown area the core of Turlock, while planning for growth towards the newly built highway.

“When you see the power of planning from that perspective, you’ve got to appreciate that people really took the long view and stuck to it. They had a plan, they had a vision and they left a recipe — which is zoning and you’ve got your master plan — they let that govern how they’re going to grow. They didn’t get pulled away by developers or someone else…they stuck to their own plans. That’s unique,” she said.

Whitmore credits the conscientious City leaders who created that 1960s era General Plan, and all the leaders who followed their example, for the success of Turlock’s downtown today.

“So many communities have actually had to go back in and define a central city. They go back in and redevelop areas to create the kind of downtown that Turlock has. It’s really unique that this community understood the value of their downtown and planned around it,” said Whitmore.

“Turlock has a very strong sense of self and its own identity and it hasn’t been afraid to maintain that identity,” she added.

Another thing that Whitmore found unique about Turlock was the amount of community participation in the General Plan process. The General Plan is a long-term document that forms a blueprint for physical development throughout the community and is the basis for land use decision-making by Planning Commission and the City Council. All cities and counties in California are required by law to have general plans.  Turlock adopted an updated General Plan in 2012, which was 20 years after the last comprehensive General Plan Update in 1992.

“In the General Plan process, I was just amazed at the involvement of the community in trying to prepare that long-range vision for the future for them. The community values that kind of planning; they participate in planning processes. You don’t get that everywhere…it’s very invigorating, it’s very positive,” said Whitmore.

“The job of a planner is much easier when the community itself values planning.”

Over her decade at the City of Turlock, Whitmore has seen a number of projects come to fruition including the General Plan Update, The Vista student apartment complex and the Ten Pin Fun Center — which will definitely be a reality in 2018. One her most recent accomplishments was updating the City’s Sign Ordinance, adopted by the City Council on Nov. 14.

Her very first project at the City of Turlock was implementing the Turlock Regional Industrial Park specific plan.  The planning process for the TRIP (former known as the Westside Industrial Specific Plan) started in 2004 and when Whitmore came to the City in 2006, she was tasked with getting it adopted.

“I just carried the ball forward from what previous planners had done, but that’s just been an amazing success for the City. It’s a demonstration of what money like the redevelopment agency was able to bring to the City,” she said.

Whitmore is one of many planners throughout California who believes that communities have suffered since the State Legislator and Governor Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment agencies — and the state funding they provided for large projects.

“Hopefully, they’ll come up with a new way of infrastructure financing so communities the size of Turlock can make these kinds of projects happen.”

While Whitmore considers the loss of State financing as the biggest challenge in her planning career, she also credits a group of “unsung heroes” for making her job easier.

“My Planning Commissioners are the unsung heroes I think. They get very little notoriety, but they are very committed. They don’t get a whole lot of recognition for the time they spend and they really do have the best interests of the community at heart,” she said.

Whitmore attended her last Planning Commission meeting as the Planning Services director in October and she was recognized as the Employee of the Month by the City Council on Nov. 14.

So, what’s next for Whitmore?

“I’m going to visit Mickey.”