Panel interjects common sense into bizarre planning process

With a unanimous vote, our city’s Planning Commission just interjected some common sense into the City Council’s months-long, bizarre, upside-down approach to updating its General Plan.

For many months, operating on an accelerated schedule to fast track results, the City Council has chosen to take on the much-delayed update to the General Plan by ignoring the General Plan and delving into the details of zoning ordinances instead. Then, once the details of zoning were finalized, they would update the overall vision for the city’s future, the General Plan, to match the details.

The council early on chose to forego letting the Planning Commission do its job, decided it would assume the role, and debated how it would perform as the city’s acting planning commission. Council members made points and counterpoints and for a brief moment in time, months ago, it seemed like the council members might agree to update the General Plan before they tackled the details of zoning and the other not-yet-approved elements of the plan.

But Mayor John Linn succeeded in winning three votes to do it his way, as he usually does. Thus, the council was charged with discussing Linn’s rewrite of zoning without having the big picture of an updated General Plan, without the benefit of the expertise of professional planners, or even the benefit of the experience and knowledge of the city’s own planning commissioners.

So the General Plan update was pushed aside to rewrite and redefine zoning, with the goal of getting rid of as many restrictions or requirements or rules as possible, but keeping just enough so it wouldn’t appear to be a total free-for-all, letting every property owner do whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted. But, for good measure, the rewrite included exemptions from building codes and grandfathering “non-conforming” buildings to continue the status quo of run-down, shabby-looking buildings remaining rundown and shabby, apparently in perpetuity.

Months later, enter the Planning Commission.

“Planners reject council proposal,” read the Lompoc Record’s Thursday morning headline following the Planning Commission’s Wednesday evening meeting. I wish I’d been there. It would have been a treat to hear some common sense about planning and how the city plans for the future. After all, it’s not just this council that’s exhibited a lack of respect for planning. Prior councils allowed the General Plan and zoning to conflict with each other in some areas of the city for years, creating real problems for property owners caught in the vise.

It would have been a treat, too, to have witnessed some respect for abiding by rules and the city’s own procedures. This council doesn’t always seem to have a lot of regard for rules and policies and stuff like that. Kind of like acting out the “it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission” way of doing business.

The Planning Commission has a legal role in the creation of General Plans submitted to the state, and with the associated elements and details defined by law. As one planning commissioner explained to me when I expressed surprise at the commission’s 4-0 vote, the Planning Commission is a quasi-judicial, regulatory body. It’s not a political body of elected officials that sometimes responds to requests of friends and supporters just because they’re friends and supporters. The Planning Commission has a process that considers evidence and engages in fact-finding as part of its decision making. Imagine that.

Absent any evidence that the existing zoning was impairing economic growth or the ability of businesses to succeed or expand or locate in the city, commissioners found there was no compelling reason to collapse four distinct zones into one big commercial free-for-all zone. And, as the commissioner noted, collapsing four zones into a single, undifferentiated zone could require updating other elements of the plan and possibly a new EIR, a long, costly undertaking.

Commissioners came to the commonsensical conclusion that the next logical step was to review and revise zoning restrictions that may indeed be burdensome, based upon evidence.

Of course, the City Council could always reverse the Planning Commission and adopt the language it has already written, as acting planning commissioners. Many other councils have reversed the Planning Commission. But, now that conflict of interest rules are being disclosed and followed, only three council members will have a vote. Those darn rules.

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