County planning decisions called needlessly complicated

A handful of unelected bureaucrats in the county Planning and Building Department have too much power over land-use decisions, the county grand jury says, one of several problems that leads to “public confusion and frustration about the planning process.”

“Planning regulations are inordinately complicated, difficult, conflicting and almost impossible to understand by the public,” the grand jury wrote.

In a report titled “Subdivision Review Board or Planning Commission: who Decides,” the grand jury looked at their relative responsibilities.

The five Planning Commissioners are appointed by elected county supervisors, one from each district. Members of the SRB are salaried county employees and do “not represent broad community interests,” the grand jury wrote.

Despite that, the review board “sometimes has greater authority over development applications” than the commission, the grand jury wrote.

The Board of Supervisors created the review board in 1992 to free itself for legislative and budget matters.

More mundane applications would go to the review board, which consists of designees from the planning and building department; the county engineer; the director of environmental health; the environmental coordinator; and the air pollution control officer.

The review board acquired more power in 2008, the grand jury wrote, but now there is a lack of clarity about which of the groups — the commission or the review board — should handle particular applications.

The grand jury blames this on contradictory county ordinances and cites several unwelcome consequences.

One is confusion to applicants and even among the planning staff.

“The three governing ordinances are lengthy and confusing to the layperson. Further, (the) planning staff offered differing interpretations in response to grand jury questions,” the jurors wrote.

One consequence, jurors wrote, is “public confusion and frustration about the planning process.”

Grand jurors also warned that the current system leads to “the potential for … decisions made by the SRB to be influenced by the planning department.” The jury wrote that the Air Pollution Control District representative on the board “typically votes ‘no’ on all development applications outside the urban reserve area.”

The grand jury recommended that the county rework ordinances to remove contradictions, and clarify who makes which planning decision.

As part of its report about the complexity of government, the grand jury included a byzantine flow chart that showed the steps a “discretionary permit” must take to be approved. It can be found on page 15 of the grand jury report, which is on the county’s website.