CITY HALL — Santa Monica’s planning director is resigning, even as City Hall faces major challenges in applying the land use plan that she most notably shepherded into existence.

Eileen Fogarty, who has led the Department of Planning and Community Development for the last four and a half years, will make her exit in May, according to the letter of resignation delivered last week to City Manager Rod Gould.

“Recently, several opportunities have arisen, and I am at a time in my life when I would like to take advantage of them,” she wrote in the letter.

Those “opportunities” include consulting work on both the east and west coasts, as well as a break from the 80 to 90-hour work weeks she pulled as planning director.

Fogarty feels comfortable leaving the Planning Department in good enough shape to move forward with the implementation of the general plan and manage large-scale development projects without her.

“Things are at a very good point, a very positive point,” Fogarty said in an interview Monday. “This was really the time to do it.”

Fogarty leaves a legacy of conquering controversial issues using community involvement in her wake.

She came to Santa Monica in 2006 from Alexandria, Va., in the midst of the divisive process of creating a land use and circulation element, or LUCE, for the general plan that would guide the city’s growth for the next two decades.

What could have been a stumbling block for any newcomer became Fogarty’s greatest accomplishment.

“Eileen breathed new life into that process,” said City Councilman Terry O’Day.

O’Day worked with Fogarty on the Planning Commission when she first arrived on the scene.

“She drew upon the experience she had from other cities in planning, and helped Santa Monicans create something that was uniquely our own,” O’Day said.

The LUCE process had fallen into disarray before Fogarty’s arrival, said City Manager Rod Gould.

“She pulled together the different pieces, gained trust and delivered an update that has garnered all kinds of awards,” Gould said.

The result of her efforts: unanimous votes from both the Planning Commission and the City Council on a document that was likely to outlast the tenure of any single official on either board.

Fogarty points to it as the “pinnacle of my professional career.”

“Having the LUCE awarded the California 2010 Award of Planning Excellence was a great accomplishment for the Santa Monica community,” she wrote in her letter. “Thus, I feel that I can now retire with the greatest confidence in the strength of the plan’s fundamentals, and in the assurance that the city is exceptionally well positioned to face the complex challenges of the future.”

Fogarty’s most apparent success may be the LUCE, but her influence created lasting change in inefficient planning processes that slowed businesses and individuals trying to get work done in Santa Monica.

Before she came, building inspectors took longer to report to projects, and there were discrepancies between what inspectors would tell clients to get done and what plan checkers eventually required of them.

“We got to the point where inspections were happening within 24 hours, and there was consistency between what inspectors were saying and plan checkers were saying,” Fogarty said. “It was about improving responsiveness.”

One of her most valuable accomplishments is the amount of trust she built between the department and the community, Gould said.

She added phases in the planning process to get more community input before developers spent large amounts of money on detailed planning documents. That concept review stage allowed the community’s desires to be aired while also limiting the financial burden on developers.

“Eileen built an incredible amount of trust, and whoever comes behind her has to maintain, re-win and keep it. These are no small things,” Gould said.

Fogarty has a lot she wants to see progress on in the two months before her departure. The department is working on ways to cut months out of the environmental review process required of most big projects, and is getting started on the Bergamot Area Plan, as well as one for Downtown.

“That would be something I’d love to be able to see through, but all of the structure is in place for these things to take place,” Fogarty said.

As of Monday afternoon, the nationwide hunt for Fogarty’s replacement had begun.

Gould met with a consultant to begin the process of finding someone who can fulfill Fogarty’s shoes and get caught up on five years of careful planning and project development.

With the creation of a new zoning code, the coming of the Exposition Light Rail Line and the plans for both Bergamot, Downtown and the Civic Center, Fogarty will be difficult to replace, O’Day said.

“Eileen is a bit of a force of nature,” he said. “She involves everyone, as appropriate, and has an ability to move in and out of various topics quickly and engage in different initiatives.”

For Fogarty’s part, she’s happy to have a bit of time to get back into ocean swimming, hiking and spending time with her husband, artist John Clendening, and cat Arney.

“I’m excited about some of the opportunities for the future,” Fogarty said. “At the same time, this has been my family, my life for five years … Leaving any of it behind is a sadness.”

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