Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Setting the Bar Higher

I was recently asked to sit on the ad hoc Permit Process Improvement Task Force of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.  Our charge is to review land use permitting processing throughout the county and to suggest changes that would allow the process to flow more easily and dependably.

At this point, we’ve only had two meetings, so it would be premature of me to speculate on eventual committee recommendations.  However, I can share musings that flowed from information presented to the committee.

At our last meeting, Doug Hilberman of Axia Architects offered thoughts on land use entitlements in California.  He made that point that compliance with adopted land use standards is generally sufficient for land use approval in other states.  In California, he described it as only the ante to enter the game, with additional demands and conditions still to be determined.

He was right.  I’ve previously described the California land use process as being more political than other states, but Hilberman and I are really making the same point, that the finish line for entitlements can be fuzzy.

 I suspect that many would respond that the best solution is to cease making additional demands after the minimum standards are met.  My bent is in a different direction.  I’ll suggest that the minimum standards need upward adjustments.

Despite legitimate concerns about California government, the state remains a wonderland of sun, sea, and slopes where many want to live.  Developers know that, complaining about the process, but still regularly knocking on the door.  And when someone had something of value, setting higher prices is the appropriate free market response.

If higher standards were set, the development community would predictably howl.  However, I think they would be quickly assuaged if they received dependability and speed in exchange.  The communities could offer them a trade.  Propose to build the projects the communities truly want and the communities would move the projects to the head of the line and issue entitlements with little additional fuss.

There are significant barriers to this suggestion.  The most obvious ones are reaching community consensus on the higher standards and receiving the concurrence of city councils and planning commissions to cede some of their traditional power to fiddle with proposed projects.  Changes in the entitlement processes may be required.

It wouldn’t be an easy change.  Perhaps not even a possible one, but it’s worth pondering.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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