By Joe Naiman
San Diego County Red Tape Reduction Task Force’s proposal to eliminate or significantly restrict community planning and sponsor groups received little support from the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, but group members must have training, the supervisors agreed.
“Planning groups are not red tape but an integral part of the planning process,” Supervisor Dianne Jacob said at the March 28 hearing. “Planning groups are not perfect, nor are other elected boards in the region.”
The proposal to eliminate or restrict planning and sponsor groups and the proposal to eliminate the county’s Resource Protection Ordinance with reliance on existing local, state, and federal environmental laws were the two most controversial of 35 recommendations from the task force. The supervisors voted 5-0 to reconvene a stakeholders’ group with the intent of retaining the RPO but eliminating redundant or duplicative elements.
The county created the task force in April 2011 to examine the land development permitting process to improve efficiency.
“The process should be the vehicle, not the destination,” said Darren Gretler, chief of the Building Division for the county’s Department of Planning and Land Use (DPLU).
Recommended changes if planning and sponsor groups were not eliminated included limiting their scope to the preparation and amendments of the general plan and community plans, providing a senior-level planner and County Counsel at each meeting, eliminating free appeals if a planning or sponsor group appeals a county Planning Commission decision to the supervisors, and reducing terms from four to two years while limiting members to two terms in a 10-year period and reducing the number of planning or sponsor group members to seven.
“I think the planning groups can be a very valuable vehicle to the community,” said Supervisor Greg Cox.
“They know their communities,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.
“Cutting red tape is about being efficient and fair, not about pushing projects through,” Gretler said.
County planning and sponsor groups were created in 1968. The county has 26 such groups that make recommendations to DPLU and advise the Department of Public Works (DPW), Traffic Advisory Committee, Department of Parks and Recreation, Department of Housing and Community Development that administers federal Community Development Block Grant funding, California Department of Transportation, and other public entities. Jim Russell, Fallbrook Community Planning Group chair since 1988, noted that only 45 of the 78 items before the planning group during the 15 monthly meetings since January 2011 involved discretionary permits.
“Planning groups do a lot more than get in the way of development,” he said.
“Eliminating planning and sponsor groups does nothing to reduce red tape,” said Valley Center Community Planning Group Chair Oliver Smith.
Jack Phillips, Valle de Oro Community Planning Group chair since 1981, said that eliminating planning and sponsor groups would denigrate the county’s unincorporated communities.
“A task force group wants you to believe that government of, by, and for the people should be eliminated from San Diego County’s unincorporated areas,” he said.
Phillips said that 54 percent of the 26 chairs have been chairs for more than four years, that they interact with other planning and sponsor group chairs, that a community’s citizens can become familiar with the group’s chair, and that frequent changes of community group telephone contact numbers would be detrimental to community members.
“Community planning groups are not red tape. A far better description would be we are the gate guards of the community,” said Spring Valley Community Planning Group Chair Scott Montgomery. “We see things that DPLU does not.”
Acting Pine Valley Community Planning Group Chair Story Vogel said the task force was created to address permit processing time.
“This has nothing to do with the community planning groups,” he said.
“The consultants are often the problem,” said Gordon Shackelford, a former Lakeside Community Planning Group chair. “ Some are very good, some are not. This whole thing would work better if instead the county removed some consultants from the list.”
The supervisors directed county staff to develop a policy on training that includes finding funding for the approximate $40,000 cost to develop an online training program. The revised board policies will require training before being seated, require annual in-person or online training, and make indemnification of planning group members contingent upon completion of training and “good standing (an absence of violations).”
“I think these are excellent suggestions that would actually strengthen the planning group process,” Jacob said.