For more than three decades, Larry Appel literally has helped shape how Santa Barbara County, the city of Santa Maria and other California areas have grown.

On Dec. 9, Santa Maria’s Community Development Department director will put down the zoning maps and codes he has helped shape for the last time when he retires from public service.

The Community Development Department is responsible for the planning and building functions of the city. As its leader, Appel supervised the review of all residential, commercial and industrial projects in Santa Maria. 

“It’s the right time,” Appel said of his retirement. “I have enjoyed doing everything I have done with all of the jurisdictions. Now it is a matter of shifting focus.”

Appel’s focus will shift from planned use development applications and building permits to spending more time with his family, traveling and his hobbies.

“I am really looking forward to spending more time with my grandkids. I have four grandsons and one on the way,” Appel said.

Currently in his free time, when he is not riding his motorcycle or bicycle, spending time with family or working in his church, Appel can be found with his camera. Some of his photographs can be seen in an exhibit in Shepard Hall in the Santa Maria Public Library.

The 62-year-old, who will turn 63 this week, didn’t originally set out on a path to government service.

“I started out pre-med. I was a bacteriology major. I wanted to go in to medical technology and be a medical missionary,” Appel said.

After about a year, he discovered medicine wasn’t for him. He left college and went to work searching for his true calling.

“I was out of college and not sure what I wanted to do,” Appel said.

He worked as a mover, a truck driver and started a commercial painting business.

“I learned how to paint years before. My dad started me in second grade painting a fence out back,” Appel remembered. “I took the painting business and went as far as I could with that."

After a couple of years as a painter, “I started thinking, maybe there is something else. I should go back to school,” he said.

Appel gathered his transcripts and went to UCSB. The counselor he was assigned happened to be part of the school’s Environmental Studies program. That meeting set him on the path that brought him to work, first, in the private planning sector before heading to public service with governments such as Santa Barbara County and, ultimately, to lead Santa Maria’s Community Development Department.

The first environmental impact report (EIR) Appel ever worked on was for a Santa Maria-based firm called Black Road Investments, which manages property on Black Road now in the city limits. This month, Black Road Investments went through the planning process to subdivide some of its property on Black Road.

“I did an EIR for them when it was still in the county and now 36 years later, I am finishing with their lot split. That is the longest project I’ve ever seen,” Appel said, laughing.

After more than 20 years working with Santa Barbara County and a few years working with Eldorado County, Appel was selected to head Santa Maria’s planning and building initiatives.

He moved into the director’s chair in June of 2009. From his soon-to-be former office on South Pine Street near Town Center West, Appel can see one of his favorite projects he help steward.

“I’ve lived here since 1983. One thing I really wanted to do is see if we can make a theater a reality,” Appel said.

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Developers of the Edwards movie theater at Town Center East tried to build the movie complex in a few locations before arriving at the corner of Broadway and Cook Street. The project almost didn’t happen, due to financial issues. It came down to changing the approved architecture plans or scrapping the project altogether. That is when Appel stepped in.

“I thought to myself that I don’t want it to be known that on my watch, I got all huffy and said, ‘No. You have to do it like this or we aren’t going to take it.’ This way we got the theater. And it still looks good,” Appel said.

He counts his work with Windset Farms, the large state-of-the-art greenhouse operation in city's southwest quadrant, among his accomplishments while on the job in Santa Maria. He was able to help them expand, which the firm is working on now, and helped put Santa Maria on the map.

“When they finish this next phase, it will be the largest vegetable structure in the United States. Right here in Santa Maria. Getting to work on that and working through the problem areas, I am really happy it all worked out,” Appel said.

During the process working with Windset Farms, Appel made it a requirement that the company put “Product of Santa Maria, California U.S.A.” on the labels of all the vegetables grown here.

“I wanted some way of getting the word out about Santa Maria,” Appel said.

Appel was instrumental in getting the much-awaited Enos Ranchos project started that, when completed, will transform more than 100 acres along Highway 101 and Betteravia Road into a popular shopping and eating destination as well as adding new homes and a park that will preserve the area and Santa Maria’s history.

While working for Santa Barbara County, Appel also had a key role in identifying problems and shutting down the Casmalia Resources Hazardous Waste Landfill south of Santa Maria.

As of Dec. 9, Appel won’t be a part of city government, but he plans to stay an active member of the Santa Maria community.

Work started three months ago to find Appel's replacement, with a new community development director expected to be named early next year.

Logan B. Anderson covers city government in Santa Maria for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter: @LoganBAnderson.

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City Government Reporter