Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Moving Forward With View Protection

We’re moving forward with view protection.

Monday night the City Council voted 5-2 to accept a proposal by Councilmember Summers and me to give the General Plan policy on “public viewsheds and solar access” a high priority and create a task force to make recommendations on how to implement that policy. The task force is scheduled to come back to us in the spring

The vote was 5-2, with Neal Andrews and Jim Monahan opposed. Neal said he believes the council can deal with these issues individually at the plan and project level, as we did with the Midtown Corridors Code – an approach that has merit, and might be worth considering were it not for the pending VCORD initiative. Jim said he would have supported the idea if we committed ourselves to placing the resulting view protection policies on the ballot – something we still might do in the future, once we have an actual policy in place.

In the course of a discussion that lasted more than two hours, we also made a number of other changes and clarifications:

-- The task force will have 15 members, not 11. This did not change the composition of the task force but, rather, corrected a math error that Ed and I had made.

-- Instead of 3 members drawn from the old Vision Committee and Community Plan Advisory Committee, we will draw 2 from that group and 1 representative nominated by the Building Industry Association.

-- Both citizen and business representatives from different neighborhoods around the city will be appointed by the local Community Councils.

-- The committee will not be charged with specifically making recommendations on viewsheds and solar access for the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan, which is likely to come before the council prior to the task force’s recommendations; but East Ventura Community Council will nevertheless have two representatives on the task force.

-- The two public members and the two Vision/CPAC members will be nominated through the normal council appointments committee process.

The task force will report back to the council no later than March 15, rather than February 15.

One very important point is that we clarified that we are asking this task force not only to make recommendations on how to implement the “public viewshed and solar access” policy but also to suggest what those terms really mean.

There has been considerable discussion as to whether this policy means we intend to protect views (of the ocean, the hills, or whatever) from private property as well as public locations; as well as which public locations we should emphasize – for example, should we focus only on north-south vistas (such as along Seaward or California streets) or should we protect views from east-west locations along Seaward and Thompson, which would obviously require much more restrictive policies?

Neal called the fact that we charged the committee with figuring this out “a punt,” and in a way he’s right. This is a tricky issue that requires a lot of discussion – and in my opinion such a detailed discussion is better conducted by the stakeholder task force than by us. This is often the case on planning issues.

Having said that, I will say that in the Midtown Corridors Code, the council interpreted “public viewsheds” to mean the protection of views along the north-south roadway corridors. We also interpreted “solar access” to required stepped-back development on commercial parcels adjacent to the yards of residential parcels.

On Wells & Saticoy, Nelson Hernandez, our Community Development director, pointed out that if we wanted this committee to make recommendations on how to incorporate view/solar policies into the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan, we might further hold up approval of that plan. That plan has been in process since 2005, and we have already held it up several times to introduce additional issues for discussion. So we removed the Wells & Saticoy plan from the task force’s charge but retained the East Ventura Community Council members on the committee.

EVCC members at the meeting were understandably not happy with us for doing this. We will have to deal with view/solar issues in Wells & Saticoy when the Community Plan and the project-level Specific Plans (for example, for the Hansen Trust and Parkland properties) come before us. Dan Cormode of EVCC pointed out that the City Council may have to come up with our own definition of public viewsheds and solar access in those situations – possibly different from what the task force will come up with.

He’s right about that. As a trained city planner, I have to say that I wish we could stop the world from moving forward while we write our planning policies until they are perfect. As a politician, I know this is not realistic in most cases. Doing a Community Plan at the same time that we are doing Specific Plans in Wells & Saticoy has been an “awkward straddle” from the beginning, and it will continue to be so until we are done.

A lot of the discussion on Monday night revolved not around how the committee would be formed or what its charge would be, but whether the resulting policies should go on the ballot. VCORD’s representatives criticized us for attempting to “end-run” their initiative and for a “bait-and-switch”. Although they weren’t specific about what they meant by this, I assume that they think the end result is that we will place a completing measure on the ballot in November of 2009.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Monahan made it clear that a competing initiative was exactly what he was looking for. He asked two pro-business speakers if they would support putting a competing measure on the ballot; and indicated that he voted against the task force idea because it did not include a provision to place the resulting policies on the ballot.

I think the question of whether we should place our public viewshed/solar access policy on the ballot in November of 2009 is premature. Right now, all we are doing is creating a task force to make recommendations to us about what that policy might be. If all goes according to plan, those recommendations will return to us next spring and we can debate at that time what policies and code changes we should put into place.

If and when we put these new items into place, we can decide whether to place them on the ballot in November 2009 as well. But let’s take this one step at a time.

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