Sins of commission

Is politics getting in the way of good planning?

DELAY OF GAME<br>Chico Planning Commission Chairman Jon Luvaas is shown here at the site of Wildwood Estates off Cactus Avenue. Luvaas, a lightning rod for criticism, notes it wasn’t the much-maligned commission that delayed the project, but rather the City Council, which in October 2006 tried to tweak it at the last minute and then sent it back to the commission for changes.

Chico Planning Commission Chairman Jon Luvaas is shown here at the site of Wildwood Estates off Cactus Avenue. Luvaas, a lightning rod for criticism, notes it wasn’t the much-maligned commission that delayed the project, but rather the City Council, which in October 2006 tried to tweak it at the last minute and then sent it back to the commission for changes.

Photo By Mark Lore

Point of controversy:
Sure to be a sticking point is the Planning Commission’s proposal, in its new work plan, to return to the R-2 densities in the 1994 general plan: 7 units per acre. A conservative council under Mayor Rick Keene down-zoned it to 3.5, and a subsequent council under Mayor Maureen Kirk increased it to 5.5. “Smart growth” advocates tout higher densities to forestall sprawl.

When Patrick Murphy announced in May that he was resigning after six years as a senior planner with the city of Chico, he said it was because he wanted to travel the world. “It’s time for a break,” he told Enterprise-Record staff writer Jenn Klein, whose story appeared May 26.

In the red-hot political atmosphere surrounding local development, however, Murphy’s innocent decision to visit exotic places like Machu Picchu immediately became fuel for the fire.

In an article published the same day, “Bertagna worries planners are stressed out,” Klein interviewed Councilman Steve Bertagna, one of two business-friendly council conservatives (the other is Larry Wahl) who think the city is too hard on developers. He charged that the real reason Murphy left was because a dysfunctional process and a nitpicky Planning Commission were driving out talented people.

“This is just not an environment where folks want to work and I don’t blame them,” Bertagna told Klein.

The story had no response from Murphy.

The next day, in an editorial titled “Meetings can be torture to watch,” the E-R bemoaned “Planning Commission meetings [that] are looking more and more like a scene from the Inquisition” and a development process that “sends a message to everyone in the building industry … that the city is going to make their lives difficult.”

Then the editorial suggested Murphy had left because of “the turmoil.”

“Let’s hope for his peace of mind that Planning Commission meetings aren’t televised in Machu Picchu,” the editorial harrumphed.

By this point, E-R readers could be forgiven for believing that the city, and especially its Planning Commission, had driven out a talented young planner. But it wasn’t true.

Reached by phone before he left town, Murphy told the CN&R that Klein had “posed the question” of whether he was leaving because of problems with the Planning Commission, and he’d told her no.

(The CN&R e-mailed Klein and E-R Editor David Little asking them about the paper’s reporting and editorial about Murphy’s departure. They declined to comment.)

This anecdote illustrates the difficulty of separating politics from process when it comes to the issue of growth and planning in Chico. Vast amounts of money are involved, feelings run high on the issue, growth is always the No. 1 issue, and everybody has an agenda—including the daily newspaper.

It’s easy to politicize planning.

As the newly released 2007 Butte County Grand Jury report states, Chico’s planning and development process is in many ways outdated and inefficient. Largely because of recent retirements, planning staffers are seriously overworked. And the process is dizzyingly complicated, so most people don’t understand it.

In such an environment, anyone with a bullhorn can inflame the public by casting blame—in online blogs, letters to the editor, actual editorials or, in the case of elected officials like Bertagna, by using their access to the media.

Bertagna and Wahl have twice tried to get Jon Luvaas, a “smart growth” advocate who chairs the Planning Commission, kicked off his seat. And Bertagna has been vociferous in excoriating the commission as a group.

It’s “chaos,” he told the CN&R in a phone interview. “I’ve never ever in my 11 years on the council seen anything close to this.” The commission should either be disbanded altogether or turned over to longtime Commissioner Kirk Monfort as a commission of one, Bertagna said. Monfort, he explained, is the only commissioner he respects.

Among other things, he criticized Luvaas for sending the commission an e-mail outlining his views on a proposed project, Mountain Vista, that was scheduled for a hearing at which he would be absent. “It wasn’t appropriate” for Luvaas to do so, Bertagna said.

He also accused the commission of obstructionism and turning down perfectly good projects, citing its recent denial of the 14-unit Las Palomas subdivision, later approved by the council on appeal. When asked just how many other projects had been denied, he replied, “I’d have to look it up,” promising to get back to the CN&R with the figure. He didn’t do so.

The E-R has mounted a drumbeat of criticism as well, targeting especially the two new commissioners, John Merz and Susan Minasian. They were accused of asking too many questions and dragging out the hearing on the Meriam Park project, for example, making it “torture” to watch.

“The commission has a no-growth bent and tries to find any way it can to deny a project—any project,” the paper editorialized. And it echoed Bertagna’s comments about Luvaas’ e-mailed comments on Mountain Vista, saying it was “a bad way to do business.”

And this: “We pity the poor members of the city’s Planning Department, whose work is being nitpicked by a bunch of political appointees who think they know more about planning than those who do it for a living.”

Since the 2006 election, when all three of the candidates the E-R endorsed—as did the Chamber of Commerce and the Building Industry Association—ended up losing to three progressives, the E-R has jumped on the Bertagna/Wahl/ Chamber/BIA bandwagon, launching barrage after barrage at the Planning Commission and the planning process.

But the serious problems with the city’s planning process didn’t suddenly appear in the six months since Merz and Minasian took their seats—nor, for that matter, in the four and a half years Luvaas has been a commissioner.

As the grand jury noted, they’ve been accumulating for at least a decade—under, it might be added, both liberal and conservative councils. Councilmembers and planning commissioners alike long have been aware that the development process has problems, and that commissioners struggle to make sense of conflicting policies and outdated zoning codes.

What makes this latest effort to politicize the issue ironic is that, for the first time in many years, the city is actually making a real effort to solve those problems.

For one thing, it’s begun working on a rewriting of the 1994 general plan, with the goal of giving the city a new “constitution” for growth created with the participation of a cross-section of citizens, from developers and other business people to artists and environmentalists.

In addition, at the beginning of 2007, the City Council, at the request of City Manager Greg Jones, asked all of the city’s boards and commissions to develop two-year work plans setting goals and priorities. The Planning Commission, working with planning staff, is the first group to finish its plan. It was set to present it to the City Council on Tuesday, July 3, after CN&R press time.

One of the key high-priority elements of that 25-page plan is to streamline the development process and make it more predictable and dependable for developers. It proposes to put more decisions in the hands of planning staff, foster more communication between developers and neighbors early in the process, cut down on appeals, update the city’s zoning codes, and otherwise make the process more responsive.

That wasn’t good enough for the Enterprise-Record, however. Last Saturday (July 1), in its weekly “Hits and Misses” editorial, it dinged the Planning Commission for taking six months to develop the plan, saying that by the time it’s adopted it will be “less than a 1 1/2-year plan. … When nobody can even agree what the plan is, there’s little wonder the Grand Jury finds problems with the planning process.”

Mayor Andy Holcombe was infuriated that, instead of crediting the commissioners with being first to complete a difficult task, the newspaper chose to attack them for not having done it faster.

“It’s a disservice to the city and the people who work and volunteer for it,” he said. “I don’t think it benefited anyone.”

Besides, he added, it’s helpful to have the work plan overlap into the tenure of the next commission. It will give those commissioners a plan to work from while they develop their own two-year plan.

Holcombe has been working to clarify the role of the commission and in recent months has sent it two memos to that effect. Critics have used them as evidence that even the liberal mayor is unhappy with the commission, but he says that’s not true.

In fact, he said, the memos could just as well be read as a message “to stay the course—you’re doing a good job.” But he did want to clarify certain procedures, especially regarding the council’s prerogative when it came to setting policy.

The effort to politicize the memos and attack the planning process, he added, is “short-sighted, misguided political opportunism.”

In its 2007 report, the county grand jury provided a balanced view of the Planning Commission, noting communication problems between it, the City Council and planning staff and urging more cross-training.

It also suggested that the way commissioners are selected doesn’t place sufficient emphasis on choosing people who know a lot about planning.

But, as Luvaas noted during a recent phone interview, there’s “far more experience on the commission than on the City Council. … It’s a highly knowledgeable commission, as far as I’m concerned—the best I’ve seen.” Luvaas himself is a good example: An attorney, he’s been monitoring local land use issues for three decades and co-chaired the General Plan Task Force in the early 1990s.

He also noted that the commission approves nearly all the projects that come before it. If any group has been guilty of delaying projects, he said, it’s the City Council, which on several occasions in the last year has practiced “planning at the podium” and sent projects back to the commission for tweaking.

Right now, though, he’s focused on the commission’s new work plan, which he described as “a collaborative process with planning staff. … We were right together on it.”

The commission will be trying in coming months “to get around the vagueness of existing codes. … It’s going to make the planning process a lot clearer and more predictable and save an enormous amount of staff time,” he said.

The politicization of the planning process is unfortunate, he said, but hardly surprising. In a town that’s growing fast, where development is a major industry, “it’s pretty tough to keep them apart. …

“There’s a faction that doesn’t want my views of planning to be a factor. But I’m gratified to know most of Chico wants smart planning.”

Luvaas is referring, of course, to voters’ election of five “smart growth” advocates to the City Council. It may be that all the carping coming from critics of the Planning Commission is a reflection of their frustration at this political domination.

“People resist change generally,” Luvaas explained, and the development community is no exception. It’s being asked to change its longtime way of doing business and, with the rare exception such as New Urban Builders, isn’t happy about it.

Projects like NUB’s Doe Mill Neighborhood have shown, however, that “good growth can be profitable,” Luvaas said. “Hopefully in the process of updating the general plan, so much information will be gathered and assimilated that developers will see that it’s to their benefit to do it a different way.”