The Monterey County grand jury takes the county planners to task.
Thursday, February 11, 1999
The biggest problem with the recently released 1998 Monterey County grand jury final report may be figuring out just where the problems lie.
The report, issued last month, takes the Monterey County Planning and Building Inspection Department to task for having no written procedures, a user-friendly permit and license-issuing process, or complete and orderly case files. The report also criticizes the department for not implementing prior grand jury recommendations for assuring full compliance with conditions imposed on permits. Other specifics investigated by the grand jury include the absence of written fee schedules and procedures for evaluating permit applications, and whether the department treats all applicants equally.
"We look at the grand jury process as a constructive, friendly process. If they discover a problem, we go after it," says William L. Phillips, county director of planning and building inspection.
But, adds Phillips, "I''m not critical of the grand jury but I don''t know where to go. I expressed the hope to the grand jury that they be clear on their methods and sample size so we could respond to their complaints. I don''t know if one file was fouled up or if they did a statistically valid sample of five years and found 30 percent were fouled up."
The grand jury also looked into citizen complaints about violations of conditions placed on the grading permit for the Canada Woods development in Carmel Valley, which resulted in increased runoff, flooding and damage during last year''s heavy rains. The grand jury reached no definitive conclusion on this issue, but states that grading was a minor contributor.
But the grand jury report doesn''t state and isn''t required to detail the methodology of its research.
"It depends on the nature of the grand jury and what they''re trying to do," says Doug Holland, Monterey County Counsel. Holland says that in general, grand juries "look at the process [and] use the complaint as a jumping off point to look at the situation and see if there is a systemic problem." All grand jury proceedings are confidential.
Nevertheless, complaints are nothing new to Phillips. "We are a regulatory agency," he says. "We''re too strict for some and not strict enough for others. It depends who you talk to."
Parts of the grand jury report on the planning department also take aim at the county for lacking "a uniform level of experience and training among Planning and Building Department evaluators of permit applications." The report goes on to state that applicants "are subject to the luck of the draw" as to the evaluator assigned to their cases and states that jury members were "told that experienced applicants, such as contractors and developers, soon learn that there are certain evaluators to be avoided if possible."
But, says Phillips, the county planning department, by definition, must address the needs of a broad mix of clients, "from the uninformed person on the one hand to the very sophisticated developer who spends his life doing this."
That same broad mix also exists among staff, according to Fran Farina, a Carmel Valley resident active in water issues and a former boardmember of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. "Many are grossly overworked and many are ill-prepared for the complex land use proposals which they are to make recommendations on.
"Even the more seasoned planners are on maximum overload from what I can see. They don''t have time to breathe and they don''t have time to think," Farina explains, "and those are the competent ones. I feel sorry for them. Then we have the novices who have no business being assigned to the level of work they are assigned.
"It''s frustrating because we''re relying on these people to give the best advice. Issues are not evaluated," says Farina, "and that eventually affects the decision-making process. It''s impossible as a decision-maker to make an informed decision. The [Monterey County] Planning Commission has realized this," she says. The evidence, she explains, is that "they keep sending things back to staff. The work product is not up to the standard one would expect."
The grand jury also blasted the county''s attempts to streamline the process via a "one-stop" approach to address the planning permit jungle, stating that the attempt wasn''t working.
But according to Phillips, "We never had a one-stop shop or proposed a one-stop shop. What we did develop (a couple of years ago) was a ''permit assistance center'' to help streamline the process. Two days a week, representatives from other agencies involved in the planning and permit issuing process helped staff the center along with planning and building inspection staff.
"What we learned after a year and a half," says Phillips, "was that there was not enough business to warrant departments bringing over duplicate files, maps, etc. In retrospect, the concept was flawed because of the amount and kind of business we had. Experienced developers didn''t use the center because they knew where to go to get their answers."
However, according to the report, "Contractors also described frustrations from the length of time which it sometimes takes to get a decision from an evaluator. Delays throw off project schedules and can result in significant increases in project costs. Some applicants indicated that it is well known which evaluators are cooperative and which are more difficult."
For the less experienced applicants, the department developed a brochure that describes the permit process. That process, notes Phillips, is very different for construction than it is for land development. The land development process may vary greatly depending on the particulars of the application.
"Building codes are very prescriptive. But we have ordinances, plans, state regulations and a mass of policies that apply to land development," says Phillips. "There is not a document that you can hand to anyone with step one, step two, etc."
To assure consistency in review of discretionary permits, Phillips says applications are reviewed with management staff as high up the line as needed to determine what the recommendations should be. "We''re increasingly trying to move that review to the front of the process instead of closer to the hearing, (to give) advice to the client earlier in the process," he says. "Sometimes we tell them up front that the department would not support [the application]."
Most complex projects, notes Phillips, do have professional assistance to see them through the process. How long that process takes depends on a combination of factors.
The grand jury report also took the planning department to task for its lack of follow-up on inspections, particularly as they related to large developments like the controversial Rancho Chualar I development in South County.
Melanie Horwath serves on the Service Area 75 citizens'' advisory board for Chualar and played a highly active role in the Rancho Chualar II process. Horwath sees a recent turn for the better. "I really find they were trying hard not to make the same mistakes as in Rancho Chualar I," says Horwath. "The planning department did a fair and decent job in handling the process and worked real hard to keep us up to date on the latest information."
Enforcement, explains Phillips, has historically been conducted on a complaint basis. The department now has three staff positions, plus one in the county counsel''s office, dedicated to enforcement activities.
Phillips notes that "probably 50 people are involved in the issuance of permits, also outside agencies. There is no question, but that in my view, there remains an imbalance in permit-issuing capabilities, and monitoring and enforcement capability. That''s not unique to this county.
"They investigate complaints, work with other agencies to establish whether enforceable violations exist, and prepare cases for prosecution" he adds. "Traditionally, enforcement tries to do as much as we can without throwing the book at folks. We''re slowly moving to make the process stronger."
Currently, Phillips is working on solutions that are in response to the grand jury report. "We take the grand jury findings seriously," he adds. "We will look carefully at the ''97 and ''98 reports together and look for ways to improve the process. It''s an ongoing process." cw