Attack on Luvaas raises hackles, goes nowhere

An effort on the part of Councilman Larry Wahl to get Planning Commission Chairman Jon Luvaas booted from his post was greeted at the Tuesday (April 3) council meeting with angry charges that it was just “politics” and “a travesty” and “a waste of council’s and staff’s time.”

It also elicited, from the other side, equally fractious accusations that Luvaas had “sucked the energy” out of the Planning Department and caused the breakdown of the planning process.

At immediate issue was a March 8 e-mail Luvaas sent to Planning Department staff regarding the proposed Mountain Vista/Sycamore Glen project. Epick Homes’ neighboring subdivisions—409 houses plus multifamily housing—have been in the pipeline for many years, but for various complicated reasons have not gotten far under either a conservative or liberal council.

The current Planning Commission has never looked at the project, so Luvaas offered “a suggestion” in his e-mail that, because it’s “a huge and sensitive project,” the commission first hold a kind of unofficial workshop on it “as an opportunity for feedback, because there’s a fairly good chance we’ll send it back for significant design work.”

“Who knows,” he added, “but I don’t want anybody’s expectations of quick action to be disappointed.”

He also requested that city staff not make a recommendation on the project, but simply give “an analysis of the project and our options.”

Luvaas is a veteran of local land-use battles, having served as chairman of the General Plan Task Force in the mid-1990s and on the Planning Commission for four years. Wahl and Councilman Steve Bertagna have long opposed him and led the effort last year to admonish him for an unfortunate remark he made during discussion of the Enloe Medical Center expansion.

To Wahl, Luvaas had “overstepped his authority” and “overburdened Planning Department staff” and either failed or refused to learn his role as commission chairman.

He was echoed by Bertagna, who said it was not in Luvaas’ power to slow down the approval process and that the e-mail showed he was “predisposed” against the project. He charged that Luvaas was “dictating” the planning process.

“Everyone in this room knows the amount of time and energy that’s being sucked out of the second floor [where planning staff works] because of things like this,” Bertagna exclaimed.

Others on the council, however, didn’t see what the big deal was. As Councilman Scott Gruendl asked, “How is asking to take a conceptual approach not useful? … I don’t see how it can be considered bad planning. … I think Jon went to extra lengths to make sure it was just a suggestion.”

During the public comment on the matter, most of the half-dozen people who addressed Luvaas’ role and reputation were supportive of him. He’s doing a good job as commission chairman, said Alan Gair, who’s been active on behalf of a stronger city tree ordinance. The charges are “a travesty,” he added. “I’ve got news for you: The Planning Commission is there to represent the public.”

Another speaker, Beverly Robertson, said she was “so impressed” when she dealt with Luvaas on the issue of the Enloe expansion, “because he was really listening to what I was saying.”

Karen Laslo, a regular council watchdog, said the charges were “a waste of council’s time” and “much ado about nothing.”

Only Jason Bougie, representing the Building Industry Association, was hostile toward Luvaas. “The process is absolutely broken,” he charged, blaming Luvaas for it.

Gruendl pointed out that Luvaas had been chairman for only three months—how can he be responsible for a broken process?

“If not him, who?” Bougie sharply replied, going on to blame Luvaas for bad morale in the Planning Department and its “inability to keep and retain employees.”

Developer Rick Colletti, speaking as chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, and developer Bill Brouhard were also sharply critical of the planning process, saying it lacked consistency and predictability. But they didn’t hold Luvaas personally responsible.

Councilwoman Ann Schwab decried the politicization of the planning process. “I’m disappointed it had to become a hot-button issue by attacking one of our planning commissioners,” she said.

“This whole thing was just a suggestion,” said Councilman Tom Nickell. “If we can’t make suggestions, why are we here?” He then equated Wahl’s effort with the Salem witch trials.

In the end, Wahl moved to refer the issue of Luvaas’ “suitability” to the Internal Affairs Committee, along with a request for a report on improving the planning process based on advisory letters submitted by the chamber and the BIA.

However, when Bertagna requested a friendly amendment to delete reference to Luvaas, saying he didn’t want to give him the boot, Wahl agreed.

After Mayor Andy Holcombe pointed out that the Planning Commission is already devising a new work plan and that Planning Director Steve Peterson is working on streamlining the planning process, Wahl’s motion failed, with the vote 5-2.