Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Project approvals need better process

The recent article on the Board of Supervisor’s denial of Dancing Horse Ranch needs an important clarification (“SLO County cuts off ranch owner’s special events,” Dec. 20).

This project was not approved by the Planning Commission, as reported. Because it was a minor use permit, it was approved by a single hearing officer who is also a Planning Department staffer.

It might seem strange to you that Planning Department staff are approving projects based on recommendations from other Planning Department staff. After all, these are discretionary actions that can require mitigation measures and conditions of approval identical to those imposed by the Planning Commission when they consider conditional use permits.

Last year, the Planning Commission acted on 32 conditional use permits, while staff hearing officers acted on 114 minor use permits. Over the last five years, the commission has considered a total of 158 projects, while 707 projects have gone to hearing officers. The vast majority of these have been approved.

While it is true that many minor use permits are for insignificant projects such as room additions and remodels in the coastal zone, they also include projects as significant as shopping centers, wineries and commercial event centers. These projects don’t even get a hearing if nobody from the public raises an objection. They are approved “on consent” with no discussion at all.

Clearly, the bulk of new development in this county is being approved by staff with essentially no public participation. We aren’t talking about over-the-counter building permits for houses. This is discretionary development that requires a judgment call with regard to specific land uses and how to avoid or mitigate impacts to neighbors and natural resources.

From a procedural standpoint, allowing important discretionary decisions to be made by a single “decider” who is employed by the same department that is making the recommendation, with little or no discussion or public testimony, is not an ideal model. While it is true that decisions by a hearing officer can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, the fee just went up to $850, further eroding public access to the process.

I want to be clear that the county Planning Department has many competent, talented staff with great integrity. In no way is this critique of the process meant to impugn their professionalism. It’s just that an impartial hearing body made up of individuals who are accountable to the public will usually make more balanced decisions than a single individual who is a part of the same bureaucracy making the recommendation. Particularly when that decision is made out of the public eye (minor use permit hearings are not televised, as commission hearings are) and with little or no public input, by members of a department that views applicants as “clients.”

The Planning Commission discussed this issue last November, as part of an annual General Plan progress report. There was some interest in taking a look at the criteria used to determine what projects are processed as minor use permits.

The commission should agendize this issue for a thorough public discussion in the near future and make a strong recommendation to the board for how to reform the process. Sarah Christie is a former planning commissioner for San Luis Obispo County.