Getting a firsthand look at well-planned as well as not-so-well-planned communities, helped steer Solvang’s new director of planning and community development into a career making small towns the best they can be.
Holly Owen, 58, recently assumed leadership of the city’s Planning and Community Development Department, which includes assistant planner Brynda Messer and Building Department permit technician Diane Christensen.
A native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Owen is a newcomer to Solvang but not unfamiliar with the Danish culture that infuses the community.
“I’m Scandinavian myself,” she said. “I attended a Norwegian college, which makes me a Scandihoovian.”
The term is often used disparagingly to describe someone from Scandinavia living in the United States, but Owen uses it with a certain amount of pride.
“I’ve also visited Grand View, Iowa, where original founders of Solvang came from,” she added.
Owen is also not a newcomer to the community planning profession, although she held a number of other jobs before focusing on that as a career.
“I was always interested in planning,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to call it.”
She did a stint in sales and marketing for the Soo Line Railroad, which serves North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and a corner of Illinois, and she had a job as a traveling sales representative for St. Martin’s Press, so she visited many small communities in a number of states.
“I’d wonder, ‘Why is this town so great and the one down the road not so great?’” she said.
Owen said she was fortunate to meet some excellent community planners who served as mentors as she studied the role of a community development director.
“I have many years of experience planning small cities in the Central Valley, where they don’t have many resources,” she said.
Owen completed her internship in Clovis, was a planning director in Livingston and Kingsburg, a senior planner in Healdsburg and a planner for Fresno County, where she “found some great mentors.”
She also owned her own planning firm.
Owen said she believes small towns, in general, have a lot in common when it comes to the issues they face, including making sure plans for growth are managed appropriately,
Healdsburg and Solvang, in particular, have a lot in common, she said.
“They’re both in wine country and they’re both a tourist destination,” she said. “They’re concerned about too many tasting rooms, parties and limos, full-time livability and vacation rentals.
“We have a lot to learn from each other in terms of having the same challenges and opportunities,” she added.
Some of the specific challenges Owen sees for Solvang are increasing affordable housing, maintaining the quality of life, securing adequate water resources, making sure the city complies with state laws and continuing good relationships with the Chumash tribe.
She wants to encourage the economic pattern that’s been established and to broaden that wherever appropriate.
“There are committed citizens here; they love their town,” she said. “My job is to certainly listen to the citizens, keeping in mind public safety and respect for the community and its guidelines.
“I have to make sure people who are new to business understand our requirements are applied equally to everybody and they’re not being picked on, that the sign ordinance and parking requirements are applied equally.”
Owen said she has to be able to explain all that in layman’s terms, too.
“You have to wear many hats and think outside the job description,” she said. “I think they’ve got a really good thing going here, and I want to make sure obstacles to success are limited, whether it’s starting a business or raising a family.”
Owen herself has raised two boys, ages 26 and 21.
For now, she’s continuing to live with her partner in Fresno and commuting to her job in Solvang each week, but she hopes to move to the Santa Ynez Valley as soon as she can.
In the meantime, she said, she plans to work hard and do the best job she can for the city.
“The city should be proud of itself for lots of reasons,” she said. “I feel like I’ve ended up in a great place.”