Council members voted unanimously to give the Environmental Planning Commission the responsibility of reviewing major development proposals, also known as "gatekeeper requests," before the City Council does. The move is expected to cost the city an additional $75,000 for a half-time city planner who would prepare reports for the EPC. The council-appointed volunteers will continue to have no decision-making authority, to the chagrin of commissioners who had a different proposal.
The change marks a shift towards examining projects as a whole for commissioners, who complain that they are asked to provide land use policy and zoning recommendations without ever taking a close look at specific project designs.
City staff said the EPC review of gatekeepers would also make the process less confusing for residents who want to be involved and could mean fewer meetings. It will increase the influence of the commission but won't give the commission power to reject gatekeeper requests, which remains a City Council decision.
Planning commissioners had a totally different proposal that would have given the group significant decision-making power. The EPC proposed having final say over a class of developments that use "planned community permits," which range from minor projects to large ones, such as the 260-unit Mayfield housing project. Commissioners also wanted final say over extensions for expired development permits, "density bonuses," which allow unusually dense buildings under certain conditions, and small "planned unit developments" or subdivisions of four units or less which the city-employed zoning administrator rules on.
The EPC recommendation was not supported by city staff or the City Council. "Final authority is not the exciting part of the work an advisory board does," said council member Ronit Bryant after recalling her time on the parks and recreation commission.
Planning commission John McAllister spoke in favor of the EPC proposal, saying that commissioners, as opposed to city staff, "have a better idea of what's going on and we feel prepared to make those decisions."
McAllister said residents who go to speak about development proposals at EPC meetings find it "more informal, more relaxed. We are not looking to streamline the process for the developer to cut corners and save some dollars."
It would have cost up to $150,000 for a full-time city planner to facilitate the larger role proposed by the EPC. Several council members noted that if the city could afford to hire another full-time employee, other departments have a greater need than city planning. Some opposed the idea of adding the cost to fees on development projects.
While some dismissed the commissioner's proposals, most council members were sympathetic of the commission's complaints, noting that most planning commissions in other cities and states have more responsibility.
Mayor Jac Siegel said an expanded role for the EPC was long past due.
"Try to find another city that does it like we do," he said.