Mountain View Voice

News - October 22, 2010

Council: Give more power to the planning commission

Commission could approve development projects, zoning changes

by Daniel DeBolt

Council members said Tuesday that the city's largely powerless environmental planning commission should be given the authority to approve small development projects and have an expanded role as the "keepers" of the city's planning policies.

During the study session, commissioners and council members who had served on the commission spoke with frustration about the lack of influence given to the group of council-appointed volunteers. A majority of the council appeared supportive of giving it new powers, which could include the ability to approve small planning projects, issue conditional use permits and make certain zoning changes, as such commissions do in other cities.

The council also supported planning director Randy Tsuda's recommendation that the commission be the "keepers" of the city's development policies, periodically reviewing them to make sure they are up to date.

'Window dressing'

Former commissioner Arnold Soderbergh, who recently resigned from the commission after three years, called the commission a "minor appendage tacked onto city government" that only comes into play after the planning department, City Council, zoning administrator and development review committee have talked about a project. "It's mere window dressing, a reactive authority with no powers, almost an afterthought. It only exists because it so states in city charter," he said.

That's not the case in other cities, where planning commissions approve zoning changes, variances and small projects.

Vice Mayor Jac Siegel was the only council member who had served on a more powerful variation of the commission decades ago, when it approved zoning changes. Those responsibilities were later taken from the commission, said to be busy with other things at the time, and given to a city-employed zoning administrator, a position now held by City Planner Peter Gilli.

"It was residents making decisions," Siegel said. "Our zoning administrator is great, but appointed people made those decisions in our city. It worked very well."

Siegel's return to the commission years after the change was frustrating, he said.

"We were totally frustrated," he said. Commissioners would ask themselves, "What are we doing here? Why are we wasting out time?"

Possible new powers for the commission mentioned Tuesday included conditional permit approvals, approving housing developments that have fewer than five units, approving zoning variances and home additions, and conducting annual reviews of the city's zoning code.

The goal would be to make sure "our precise plans or zoning codes are never as out of date as they are today," Tsuda said. "There's no reason why things need to be 10 to 20 years out of date."

Under those changes, picking planning commissioners could become an even more political process than it currently is. It's already viewed by many as a stepping stone to the City Council. The current commission is partly divided among housing advocates and slow-growthers.

Commissioners say that say that they've often heard from city staff that they can't take on more work because it is costly — every time the group meets it costs the city staff time and money to take the commission's input.

Mike Kasperzak was the only council who appeared to have serious concerns about giving the commission more powers.

"We don't want to make the process any tougher" for developers, Kasperzak said. We don't want to hear developers saying, "I'd rather be in Los Altos or Palo Alto. A few people will say the planning commission should be doing more but I don't hear a lot of people saying that the system isn't working."

Other council members said that giving decision-making authority to the commission could help streamline the planning process by reducing the "duplication" of effort among the various bodies that govern planning in Mountain View.

While the commission may be able to approve certain projects, most agreed that such decisions should be able to be appealed for a City Council decision on the matter.

The commission and city staff are expected to return to the council at some point with specific proposals for expanding the commission's powers. Currently the commission is busy with its most ambitious undertaking as of late, as it reviews a voluminous update to the city's general plan, a blueprint for future development city-wide. Because of that, and the fact that there are "really good people" on the commission right now, council members said the timing was right to give the commission new responsibilities.

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