Builders, appellants face new rules
Should Chicoans have the right to bring any appeal to the City Council? That notion became the heart of the matter Tuesday night (Dec. 4), when the council considered streamlining permit processes and making them more “transparent.”
The proposal, presented by Planning Services Director Steve Peterson, included three components that passed by supermajority votes. The council empowered city staff on the Map Advisory Committee to approve or deny simple condominium conversions (7-0); mandated that developers hold a neighborhood meeting before submitting a project application (5-2); and decided to handle rezoning requests for properties in general-plan study areas only when the area in question comes before the council in update proceedings (6-1).
The appeals revamp, though, just squeaked through. Scott Gruendl, Mary Flynn and Mayor Andy Holcombe supported Tom Nickell’s motion to compress the process by allowing only one appeal, to the next level of authority. Steve Bertagna, Larry Wahl and Vice Mayor Ann Schwab disagreed, their reasons just slightly different cuts from the same cloth: If the council is ultimately responsible for City Hall decisions, councilmembers should be able to review those decisions.
“I’m not comfortable letting decisions rest at a lower level of authority,” Schwab said, adding a few moments later, when declaring her opposition: “It’s our duty to citizens to allow appeals to the highest level.”
Holcombe expressed faith in the professionalism of city staff to handle “minor” matters. “What might appear minor to you might be major to the applicant,” Wahl responded. “To deem that minor speaks ill of us"—and doesn’t give the matter a public hearing.
Reducing hearings is part and parcel of streamlining, though. Peterson told the council that city staff spend an average of 340 hours total preparing for a Planning Commission meeting. An appeal—council, commission, Architectural Review Board—requires extra staff time and several thousand dollars.
Beyond the cost to the city, he said, is the cost to the applicant. A staff review takes one to two months; a public appeal takes four to six months, and for a builder “time is money.”
The new appeal code, upon ratification at a later meeting, will work as follows:
• Appeals of applications requiring no interpretation of city standards—i.e., straightforward remodeling or building that either meet all the requirements or don’t—go to the city manager for administrative review (unless the municipal code specifically allows a council hearing).
Excluded from this rule on so-called “ministerial” decisions were telecommunications applications. Since cell-tower projects often draw complaints from residents, Peterson told the council he needed more time to craft a more complex procedure.
• Appeals of the Zoning Administrator’s decisions—i.e. zone permits, rezoning, variances—go to the Planning Commission.
• Appeals of what Peterson called the “quasi-judicial or -legislative matters that the ARB or PC decides” go to the City Council.
The rationale, Peterson stressed repeatedly, is ministerial decisions are “pass/fail"—"a 10-foot setback is a 10-foot setback or it’s not.” There’s no discretion involved, or needed.
Bertagna commented, without singling anyone out, that he’d seen councilmembers make decisions on nondiscretionary matters. But he mainly objected to bypassing the council—"anything that takes us out of the loop takes us out of the know.”
Gruendl and Schwab expressed confidence that interim City Manager Dave Burkland would let them know about problems, with Nickell suggesting biweekly reports as an avenue. Even if not, complaint calls from citizens certainly would clue them in.
Wahl, meanwhile, said he “appreciate[s] transparency as well as better-smarter-faster” procedures and “approval should be at the lowest possible level, but there should be a mechanism for an appeal to come to the council.”
Just how many appeals they’re talking about remains unclear. Bertagna, in his 11th year on the council, didn’t think the council heard many on ministerial actions. Peterson said he could supply statistics later.
Impatient for action on a plan four months in the making, Nickell pushed for a vote. He accepted two friendly amendments, and the 4-3 approval included the provisos that the council review the results quarterly and that Peterson give them the numbers on ministerial review before the final reading.
The most complex of the proposal’s four components involved the general plan update. In order to avoid piecemeal planning at a time when the city is shaping its blueprint for growth—long term and big picture—the council’s progressive majority approved a means for considering individual applications and the general plan at the same time.
The city, as it did in 1994 (and as Butte County is currently doing), will identify areas for potential development. Rezone requests for properties in each of those areas will get put on hold and considered only when the council considers that particular area. The window for such applications will open 30 days after the code takes effect; an applicant could wait as long as two years for an approval or denial.
Exempt from the rule: properties smaller than two acres and low-income housing projects.