With supervisors poised to eliminate or drastically streamline rural planning groups, members of the citizen panels defended their role in guiding backcountry development last week.
Last month, a panel proposed revamping planning groups as part of a broader attempt to cut red tape in the county government’s process for approving development. On Feb. 29, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider the fate of the planning groups.
Members of the planning groups and one supervisor bristled at the proposed changes in December, leading the board to delay the matter for two months.
Planning groups serve towns from Valley Center to Alpine and Rainbow to Ramona. They meet monthly to discuss applications for new subdivisions, shopping malls, zone changes and other development.
Members are unpaid and elected by the public; their recommendations are not binding, but can sometimes influence how supervisors view a project.
Last month, the now-dissolved Red Tape Reduction Task Force —– initiated by North County Supervisor Bill Horn —- recommended the board either eliminate the planning groups and county funding for them, or severely limit what they can do.
Horn is a staunch development backer; in August, he was the lone vote against the county’s new general plan, saying it severely restricts growth in the backcountry.
In the task force’s report to the board, it said some planning group members have overstepped their authority by requesting project studies and changes from developers.
The task force added that the citizen panels “can create potential liabilities” for the county, should they neglect to fill out required forms that disclose their economic interests.
Its report on the planning groups was part of a longer list of ideas to streamline county development rules submitted by the task force, many of which were approved.
At the December meeting, Horn and Supervisor Ron Roberts said they supported making changes to the planning groups.
But the full board delayed its vote after East County Supervisor Dianne Jacob and several town planners balked at the suggestions. Jacob asked for time to meet with planning groups in her district.
Megan Jones, the county’s coordinator for the task force, said none of the county’s 26 community planning groups was notified in advance about the recommendations, leading several town planners to say the task force’s work amounted to a stealth attack.
Last week, the government watchdog group CaliforniansAware said the supervisors violated the state’s open meeting law by approving several task force ideas when their agenda indicated the ideas would be sent back to staff for further review.
Shrinking panels one idea
Supervisors in February are expected to again consider the task force’s recommendations, which include limiting planning group meetings to one per development proposal, shrinking the panels from 15 to seven members and imposing two two-year term limits within a 10-year period for the planners.
There are no term limits for planning group members.
In December, supervisors approved many of the task force’s other ideas, including creating an outside audit panel to regularly review the performance of the county permitting departments; giving county project managers more authority to make decisions across department lines; and creating incentives for county staff members to quickly process a project.
In interviews since the December meeting, several planning group members said they remain adamantly against the proposed changes.
Several said they believe the task force is trying to carve away citizen participation.
Power grab seen
“They (developers) don’t like the fact that there are people out there that have a voice in the process that are speaking negatively of their project —- and that’s the citizenry,” said Paul Marks, chairman of the San Dieguito Community Planning Group.
“In a nutshell, I’m not happy,” added Dennis Sanford, who heads the Rainbow Community Planning Group. “I equate this to just another bureaucratic step to control everything from a high level. I equate it to Sacramento trying to control everything about a local school.”
Other town planners, including Jim Piva, chairman of the Ramona Community Planning Group, said they were open to limited changes.
Piva said he supports term limits for planning group members, noting some new members may feel “intimidated” by those who have served for a decade or more.
He suggested placing a limit of two 4-year terms on town planners. Those are the same limits voters recently placed on county supervisors.
In a brief phone interview last week, Ivan Holler, chairman of the task force and a former deputy director of the county’s planning department, declined to discuss the recommended changes or address concerns raised by community planners.
Horn wants changes
Anita Lightfoot, Horn’s spokeswoman, said last week that Horn continues to support major changes to the planning groups.
“No one is suggesting ‘eliminating planning groups’ —- we are talking about liability and whether or not the county will continue to be on the hook for indemnifying these community groups,” Horn said in a statement provided by Lightfoot. “My concern is the cost to the taxpayers of having these groups under the county umbrella.”
At the December meeting, Supervisor Ron Roberts joined Horn in calling for major changes to the planning groups; Supervisors Greg Cox and Pam Slater-Price said they were less inclined to overhaul the groups.
Jim Russell, who has served as chairman of Fallbrook’s planning group since 1986, said his group gives residents “an opportunity to find out what’s going on before the bulldozers start to rumble.”
Even so, he said, he’s confident other community groups in the rural town would take up the task of reviewing development projects should supervisors eliminate the panels.
Citizens would ‘lose the hammer’
He said losing the affiliation with the county would mean the planning groups would “lose the hammer” of free appeals of development projects, something Russell said has been used by the Fallbrook group only a handful of times during his tenure.
The appeal cost to the public is several hundred dollars, he said.
Russell, like other town planners, said the task force was misguided in its efforts.
He emphasized that the citizen panels don’t have much authority for the task force to take.
Still, Russell said, it is in developers’ best interest to attend planning meetings and meet with group members, even though developers are not required to do so.
The groups’ only power, said Marks of the San Dieguito panel, is “the power of persuasion.”
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