Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Cleaning Up The Planning Process

We’re approving projects too fast.
We’re not approving them fast enough.
They’re too dense.
They’re not dense enough.
We’re wasting too much money on planning studies.
We’re not doing enough planning studies.

In the typical week, I hear all these complaints – and many more, equally contradictory – about how our planning process works. And they’re all true.

That is to say, they’re all true sometimes.

The City Council and the staff have spent a lot of time lately trying to sort out what’s going on with our planning and development review processes and how to improve them. After 3½ years on the Council, I wish I could say that we have it all figured it out. We don’t. But – I always seem to say this – we’re trying, and we’re making progress. Let me talk first about the meeting last Monday, where we looked at the planning process, and then the meeting a week ago Monday, where we again talked about Saticoy & Wells.

Last Monday night (May 7), our planning staff presented us with an update on how our planning processes are doing and where the bottlenecks appear to be. I have to say that this was one of the best-thought-out presentations I’ve seen since I’ve been on the Council. I came away it realizing that the problem is not that our planning processes are too long or too short – have too many steps or too few. Rather, the problem, all too often, is that we don’t quite know what we want, and we don’t discipline ourselves up-front to clarify (1) what we want, and (2) whether the project in front of us is giving us what we want.

The basis of the report was a pretty intimidating-looking flow chart that tracked absolutely everything we do in planning – from Advance Planning, where our staff draws up plans; to Current Planning, where we process development projects; to Land Engineering, where final plans are approved after the project itself has been OK’d. Even though the flow chart is complicated, just working it through made me see the process much better.

For example, most projects go to the Design Review Committee for conceptual review and then, later, for detailed design review. This makes sense – except it happens before the project goes to the Planning Commission. So if the Planning Commission raises a significant issue about the size or scale of a project, they are accused of holding up the process, because the applicant has spent a lot of time and money getting to that point. This creates a kind of juggernaut effect for a project – by the time it gets to decision-makers, it’s hard to stop or change significantly. An exception here is the Housing Approval Program, where projects get a combined DRC/Planning Commission pre-screen before detailed design.

Similarly, the flow chart made it clear that there are at least three different points at which historic preservation issues could be considered – at an early conceptual review by the Historic Preservation Committee, during the CEQA process, and at the more typical hearing in front of the HPC late in the process. When I asked the staff how we decide whether and when to use any of these opportunities, they made it clear that they are confused and they want direction from us. OK, message received – thanks to clear presentation.

Even so, I have to say that things in Current Planning have been moving well in recent months. Week after week, it has seemed, some developer has come before either the Planning Commission and the City Council complaining that their project has been in process for three years or five years or something. My point in response is that these projects are now coming forward because the logjam has been broken.

It’s no accident that these projects are coming forward after being delayed. We have better staff leadership determined to move them forward. We are more clear in our direction and projects are closer to what we want and we are approving them. Even developers have a hard time grasping this – listen to us, do what we say, and your project will get approved..

The most recent example was Aldea Hermosa, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. There was a stutter-step in front of the Council, but the Council made its direction clear: Redesign the project so that no lots were less than 40 feet wide. The vote on this was 5-1. This required a redesign that cost the developer 3 houses. The developer tried to meet with each councilmember in an attempt to bring back their previous design – essentially, to get the council to overturn its decision. This didn’t work. When the redesigned project came back five weeks later, and the Council’s concerns had been addressed, the project was approved 7-0 with no discussion. See? Follow our direction and we can move forward.

A week ago Monday (April 30), we had another workshop (jointly with the Planning Commission) on the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan. The intent here was to have a more in-depth discussion about three items that we had flagged a few months before – parks, agricultural buffers, and retail. After talking with the school district, the staff added a fourth topic to the workshop – schools. This whole discussion was a good example of how difficult it can be to draft a good plan up-front – and how important it is to do so.

We’re doing a Community Plan for Saticoy & Wells because there are currently four large projects on the books that would essentially build out the area by adding another 2,000 or so housing units. Each developer was moving forward individually and we wanted them to work together, so that, for example, their neighborhoods could be interconnected. (The “go it alone” mentality of our local developers in, in my opinion, a legacy of our Residential Growth Management Program, which pitted developers against each other for allocations, rather than encouraging them to work together to create better neighborhoods.)

To me, another important reason to do Community Plans is to make sure that we can work together with the developers to make sure that we get the infrastructure and community facilities we need to serve the community – streets, schools, parks, libraries, etc. In the case of Saticoy & Wells, the city had had some discussions about parks with the developers – individually and collectively – but we had not looked at the “big picture” of what the parks system in the area would look like. We concluded that, generally, the parks as proposed met the standard for park space in our General Plan, but we referred some specific issues about parks policy in the Community Plan to the Parks & Recreation Commission, which took these matters up on tonight (Wednesday, May 9th.)

At the same time, the staff met with the school district and came forward with some concerns about schools. To wit: The buildout of Saticoy & Wells would likely generate more than 900 students. The school district says it needs an elementary school and probably also a contribution to a middle school – the closest middle school is Balboa, near the Government Center. And so far, the 4 large development proposals don’t address schools at all.

After the schools issue was brought up, some of the developers complained about a “late hit” – shocked that this issue would be brought up so late in the process. But if schools aren’t deal with pro-actively now, they’ll have to be dealt with in an even more desperate way later. The school district will eventually collect school impact fees, but these won’t be enough to cover the cost of the schools, and the Environmental Impact Report will identify a school deficit. Then the school district and the city will be scrambling to try to make the best of the situation, and the developers will be even further down the line.

So we referred the school issue to the city-school liaison committee – a group consisting of two councilmembers and two school board members – so that the city and the school district can talk with the developers about how best to resolve the issue and provide us with policy recommendations for the Community Plan. The liaison committee is a “Brown Act” committee whose meetings are public and noticed in advance, so any member of the community should be able to attend these meetings.

If this sounds like doing planning inside out, upside down, and backwards, it is. When I took office in late 2003, the four developers will already under way with their plans and had strong expectations of being able to move through the process independent of one another. Yet these major issues – and many others -- had not been addressed.

As a council, we faced three choices. We could have allowed all the projects to go forward separately, which means we never would have gotten the public infrastructure and community facilities we need. We could have put all the developers on hold while we did the plan, which would have sent the message, once again, that we are totally anti-development. Or we could have tried to craft the overall policies for the area that the developers needed to adhere to while at the same time moving the projects forward as best we can. This is what we have done.

The Community Plan process has not been perfect. We’ve had a number of excellent workshops, and both staff and consultants have done excellent work. But in the draft plan up to this point, we haven’t dealt with a lot of core issues – infrastructure and facilities. I think this is partly because, as I said before, we’re “out of practice” with community planning because of the RGMP. (And even when we try to address the issues, we’re not always clear; some council members, our senior staff, and Parks & Rec Commissioners spent a good deal of time early this week trying to interpret exactly what we asked Parks & Rec to do.) On Saticoy & Wells, there’s a certain amount of “muddling through” we are going to have to do to wind up with not only a good set of projects but also a fine community as well. It won’t always be pretty, but we will do it in the end.

But I have to say that I think both the council and the staff is learning. At last Monday’s council meeting, Nelson Hernandez, our Community Development Director, said that in future community plans – beginning with the North Avenue plan, which is next – the staff will prepare a list of all possible aspects of the plan (and their cost) and discuss with the council what the scope should be.

When I ran in 2003, I said over and over again that mistakes were inevitable and instead of being afraid to admit them (as was the case at City Hall at the time, at least in my estimation), we had to be able to acknowledge them and learn from them. We’re doing that now, and the planning and development process is getting better as a result.

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