Sunday, March 18, 2007

Post-Mortem on Aldea Hermosa

Obviously, I was unable to attend last Monday’s council meeting, but I did watch the re-run of the council meeting on TV on Sunday, especially the now-famous debate over the Aldea Hermosa project.

This is the 50-unit project in the Wells-Saticoy that came before the council after lengthy review and recommended approval by the Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission. The council debated the project at length, but council approval of the project broke down over issues that usually wouldn’t take up the council’s time on an individual project – most specifically, how many houses would be one story instead of two, and whether the smallest lots should be 40 feet wide instead of 35.

The council continued the item for five weeks in order to allow a revision the project of the project that would change the lot size (a proposal to limit some units to one story failed). The developer went into a pretty severe tirade and threatened to pull his investments out of Ventura. (,1375,VCS_251_5416560,00.html)

Since I wasn’t at the meeting, I’ll not comment on the merits of the project, but let me talk a bit about the process.

Should the City Council be “designing from the dais” on Monday nights? Should we be devoting a lot of time on a Monday night to questions like, whether the width of lots in a 50-unit project is 35 feet or 40 feet?

Of course not. This is what we have a Planning Commission and a Design Review Committee for. However, this kind of “micro” discussion is an almost inevitable result of the current transitional period we find ourselves in.

We approved a new General Plan in 2005 – and it was very general, containing relatively few specifics about what our development standards should be. We are working on Community Plans (including in Wells-Saticoy) and new Codes with more specific detail as quickly as we can, but in the meantime a number of projects are moving forward through the approval process. In the case of Aldea Hermosa, the developer received 64 RGMP allocations in 2002.

So, to some extent, we are all engaged in an ad-hoc effort to move projects forward while we revise and clarify our development standards. This is understandably a tricky process.

On the one hand, under our system we delegate most of the detailed review and discussion of the specifics of project design to the Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission. If we are necessarily engaged in some ad-hoc decisionmaking in the short run, then we are going to have to trust the DRC and the Planning Commission sometimes. (Believe it or not, most of the time we don’t overturn the DRC and the Planning Commission.)

On the other hand, there may well be important issues that emerge in these projects that we have not debated at the council level – because we are not done with the Community Plans and the codes. For example, when Deputy Mayor Christy Weir tried to get the council to reduce the heights of some houses on the perimeter from two stories to one story, she noted that we had taken similar steps on Citrus Walk (the Hailes Ranch project near the Community Park). Had we done it just that once to allay neighborhood concern? Or had we set a precedent we expected future projects to follow, whether neighbors care or not? Hard to say. But, unfortunately, in guiding applicants, the staff, the DRC, and the Planning Commission must read these tea leaves from us.

Much of the discussion Monday night was, in fact, a really clunky way to have a policy debate about clustering housing in traditional-style neighborhoods. Some of the lot sizes in the Aldea Hermosa project are very small – a tradeoff for a small park inside the tract, among other things. The tradeoffs associated with clustering are a pretty common source of controversy in the world of planning (yes, I saw this same debate going on in Charleston last week!).

In the case of Aldea Hermosa, the staff, the DRC, and the Planning Commission all came to the conclusion that we at the council had already had that policy debate and we had concluded that clustering is a desirable approach. Given the language in the General Plan and our approach in some previous East Ventura projects – including Hailes Ranch and the Hertel-Cabrillo project, which we approved a month ago – I can’t say as I blame them.

In this kind of a transitional environment, I think the best we can hope for is “learning by doing”.

Our staff, our applicants, the Planning Commissioners and the members of the DRC all would do well to watch which the seemingly “micro” issues that we debate to understand what the council consensus is on policy issues that may still be pending. These, then, can be worked into future policy recommendations and project designs.

But we have an obligation as well – to the staff, the applicants, our appointees on the Planning Commission and the DRC, and other neighbors and citizens as well. That obligation is to do more than just “design from the dais” on Monday nights.

If we stumble into a discussion about house heights or lot sizes, we have an obligation to step back and think about whether we’re really debating an unresolved policy issue or just expressing our personal preferences. If it turns out we are debating a policy issue, we have an obligation to frame it that way and send a very clear message – a consensus of the council – as to what the policy should be. And if we do send a message, we also have an obligation to be consistent – and not change our mind next Monday night.

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