IT’S UNANIMOUS: SUPERVISORS SPARE PLANNING GROUPS

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Some other "red tape" reduction items are approved; action is postponed on Resource Protection Ordinance

By Danielle Cook

April 2, 2012 (San Diego)--On Wednesday, The San Diego County Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected Red Tape Reduction Task Force recommendations that would eliminate or severely limit the scope of community planning groups. The recommendation was one of thirty designed to speed up the permitting process and deliver better “customer service” for developers.

On the table was outright elimination of the groups or, alternatively, major changes. The proposed changes included: limits to size of planning groups, elimination of indemnification for members, imposition of term limits, and elimination of County financial support of the appeals process so communities would have to spend between $500 and $750 for each appeal they deemed necessary. Finally, there was even a recommendation that if planning groups were allowed to exist, they should be limited to quarterly meetings and that the County should spend $230,000 a year to have a senior planner and County attorney present at each meeting. The latter suggestion came from Supervisor Horn.   

Twenty-six local unincorporated area planning groups were represented at the Supervisors’ meeting, where chairs and supporters came out in force to protest the Red Tape Reduction Task Force’s recommendations. They represented communities such as Alpine, Julian, Spring Valley, Pine Valley and Jacumba. In all, there were 42 speakers: four in favor of reining in the planning groups and thirty eight opposed.

Scott Montgomery, Chair of the Spring Valley planning group stated “Our group of 70 volunteers serve as “gate guards” of the community. They average seven projects per month and bring a lifetime of expertise to the County.”

Story Vogel of the Pine Valley planning group stated, “One of the benefits of planning groups to the County is that we have the longest institutional memory you can’t buy, and offer help for officials who are constantly coming to us for information.”

Planning groups are elected volunteer advisory panels that review and provide feedback on proposals for new development among other backcountry issues. Members are unpaid and elected by the community. Project recommendations are not binding, but the planning groups often influence Supervisors’ and the public’s perception the project

The red tape committee, through the County staff presentation, said some of the planning groups have been known to delay projects by arbitrary decisions or because of the personal agendas of their members.

Sharon Haven of Alpine acknowledged that some planning groups are seen as difficult by developers but said that’s no reason to abolish them all.

I’ve seen good planning groups and bad planning groups,” she informed the supervisors,“but they always reflect the community. These are people who volunteer and they have passion and dedication and by and large they get the job done.”

Supervisor Bill Horn voiced concern over the downside of continuing to indemnify the groups, especially if any members were shown to violate the Brown Act. 

Patsy Fritz, a long-time activist from Valley Center, chastised Supervisor Horn, who has been thought to favor developers and who initiated the Red Tape Reduction Task Force in 2011. Fritz accused Horn of exaggerating the costs to the County for legal support of the planning groups.

“The public is not stupid,” she said. “We see right through Supervisor Horn’s claim that indemnification will bankrupt the County and we are sick of being lied to.” Fritz went on to point out that, based on County figures obtained through the Public Records Act, legal costs for planning and sponsor group members only averaged “$16.37 per year over the past 12 years.”

There were also some pointed comments from the speakers on the fact that the communities should be viewed as “customers too” and not just the developers. One speaker said that the action to eliminate or suppress the planning groups was just un-American.

In her closing comments, Supervisor Jacob stated, "Planning groups are not perfect but neither are other elected boards. Planning groups are not red tape, but an integral part of the planning process." This echoed the testimony of the majority of the speakers at Tuesday's meeting.

Supervisor Cox stated that the planning groups provide “valuable information to County staff.” However, he went on to say “we have dropped the ball on training.”

In a surprising move, and, after much discussion, the Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of maintaining the groups’ status ‘as is’ with some caveats. These are: All those serving on the planning groups must go through mandatory training on the Brown Act and how to conduct meetings. This training will be delivered either in person or on-line before the planning group member is seated.

Action on another controversial proposal made by the Red Tape Reduction Task Force and opposed by numerous planning group members, which called for elimination of the County's Resource Protection Ordinance, was postponed.  

While there are no term limits, groups must rotate leadership after two years. Meeting agendas will be provided prior to all meetings.

In addition, indemnity and defense will be based upon being in ‘good standing.’ This means that if a planning group member is found to have violated the Brown Act, they can still serve but only at their own risk.