By Karen Brainard
Complaints about the obstacles and lengthy timeframe to do any building or developing in Ramona were voiced at the Ramona Village Design Group meeting last Thursday after a county staff member explained proposed improvements to the streamline the process.
“This has been the most difficult community I have ever worked in,” said developer Steve Powell, who is president of Woodcrest Homes Inc. in Ramona.
Powell said Ramona has been more difficult to work in than coastal communities, and the process continually becomes worse.
The Oct. 13 meeting was led by Howard Blackson of PlaceMakers who is working with the village design group to create custom-tailored zoning, known as form-based codes, along with design standards. Blackson presented his unfinished draft of Project Ramona form-based codes and a booklet of architectural standards to receive feedback from members of the village design group, Ramona Design Review Board, Ramona Community Planning Group and other interested residents. About 18 people attended the meeting.
Speaking with Blackson was Joe Farace, the zoning project manager from the County of San Diego. Farace talked about creating a ministerial checklist for building applicants to help expedite the process.
“We eliminate the need for discretionary permits,” he said.
The checklist would cover such items as building location, parking, signage and lighting, and is intended to simplify the building or developing process, he said.
Residents brought up the “B” designator and the regulations that Ramona, along with other unincorporated areas, must follow. Those regulations require county staff and the Ramona Design Review Board to review projects.
Farace said the county would not eliminate the B designator, but one of the problems is applicants are not clear about where to go and what to do. The process becomes discretionary as it involves the decision of a county planner and, in some cases, several planners. Farace also noted that discretionary projects are subjected to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which can add 12 months to the process.
“If ministerial, it’s not even subjected to CEQA,” he said.
However, not every project will meet the checklist, he added. If a project comes in with an environmentally-protected vernal pool, the county cannot approve it with the checklist, he said, adding that, if it did, the county would get hammered by the state.
Powell said that to take CEQA out of the process could be difficult because most properties in Ramona have environmentally-protected elements such as non-native grass — which he described as basically a weed, the Stephen’s kangaroo rat or vernal pools.
“All of my clients’ projects fall in that criteria,” he said.
“We can’t get around certain environmental issues,” responded Farace.
While Powell commented that it’s wonderful to focus on architectural standards, he said that by the time an applicant gets through the county process, he just wants his permit and by then he probably has liquidated his assets.
Resident Jim Salvatore, a former member of the Ramona Design Review Board, also commented on costs, saying county and state fees have stopped construction in Ramona.
Powell questioned whether the state and federal environmental agencies are controlling development and said, “I’m mad at the system.”
Blackson steered the group to discussion on proposed design and architectural standards for Ramona’s village core. His booklet shows architectural standards focusing on such elements as columns, railings, awnings, windows, storefront doors, lighting, sidewalks and building heights for mercantile. Blackson told the group he wants feedback on proposed architectural standards and how to best present them in the book.
Paul Stykel, a member of the village design group and the Ramona planning group, asked if property owners will be informed when the design standards are completed. Blackson said they will be notified.
Blackson said he will continue to work on the draft of the form-based codes which splits the village core into districts and addresses civic space, building placement and form, and storm water management, among other development-related items.