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  Planning Director's Effort to Isolate Citizens from Review Process Proceeds in Fits and Starts
August  29, 2003

The full text of the proposed Design Review Ordinance amendment is now available and is attached at the end of this posting. There are three key changes proposed:

  • The threshold for discretionary review of residential additions would be raised from the current 250 SF to 750 SF.
  • Residential additions from 750 SF to 1,250 SF would be reviewed by a Planning Department staff person instead of the Design Review Board. The staff review is appealable to the Design Review Board, but only after filing a formal appeal and paying a fee.

Planning Director Barry Cromartie embarked on an aggressive political campaign to stimulate (simulate?) interest for the expanded exemptions. He secured letters of support from 20 large developers for his proposal. The Council of Industries also provided a letter of support. Since neither the 20 developers nor the Council of Industries membership is involved in projects that involve small residential additions, one wonders where the relevance is and why they are so interested in the proposed amendment. One also wonders how Cromartie will pay off his debt of gratitude to these 20 large developers and numerous industries, most of whom either have or will have large projects in Richmond subject to discretionary review by the Planning Department. 


After securing developer support, Cromartie then turned to the neighborhood councils, giving them (in the forum of the Neighborhood Coordinating Council) three choices of expanded exemptions: 500 SF, 750 SF and 900 SF. Interestingly, "None of the above" or "maintaining the status quo at 250 SF" was a choice. Pretty slick. Nevertheless, trying to be cooperative, 10 of the 13 neighborhood councils went ahead and filled out the “ballot” form, indicated a preference for the lowest 500 SF exemption rather than the higher options. The results are shown below:


Santa Fe                       500 SF

Marina Bay                    500 SF

Parchester Village          500 SF

Eastshore                      500 SF

Greenridge Heights         500 SF

Laurel Park                    750 SF

Carriage Hills South        900 SF

Panhandle                     500 SF

Atchison Village             500 SF

Iron Triangle                   750 SF

Fairmeade-Hilltop           500 SF

Richmore Village            500 SF

East Richmond              500 SF                              


Ignoring the neighborhood council preference for a lower threshold, Cromartie then went to the Richmond City Council with a recommendation for the 750 SF exemption, which he received - with only my dissenting vote. By law, zoning ordinance changes must be recommended by the Planning Commission before they can go to the City Council, so even though Cromartie had the City Council endorsement for his higher threshold, he then had to trek back to the Planning Commission, where the matter was heard on August 21, 2003. The Planning Commission, I understand, chopped the exemption back to 500 SF.


In all fairness to Cromartie, the proposal is not entirely suspect, and his stated objective of making the review process more efficient and less costly is laudable. The exemption is not unconditional:


A.   Proposed projects shall comply with all requirements of the zoning district and these administrative design review requirements.


B.   Proposed projects shall match the existing building design features such as architecture, materials, color, texture, trim, roofing material and pitch of roof.


C.   Proposed projects shall be of a single story in height and not exceed 15 feet in height.


D.   Proposed projects shall not eliminate existing on-site parking, convert or enclose an existing garage, or otherwise lessen available on-site parking or otherwise create a nonconforming parking situation.


E.   No detached second dwelling units shall be approved by this process.


F.   If an attached second unit is exempt or up to 30% of the existing living area it shall receive approval of an Administrative Design Review.


G.   No hillside development on slopes exceeding 15% shall be approved by this process.  Slope shall be measured along all four sides of the lot.


H.   No additions over garages shall approved by this process.


I.    All proposed residences or room additions on un-fenced lots shall be reviewed and conditioned to ensure that the privacy of the neighboring residences is preserved.


J.    Residences and additions shall provide similar architectural enhancement on all four sides as shown on elevations provided by the applicant


K.   All residences and residential additions approved by this process shall have 30-year roofs.



The result, however, will be that those types of projects that were previously controversial, or do not meet the above conditions,  will still end up in front of the Design Review Board.


Currently, the existing and proposed language relating to neighborhood council input reads as follows:

”All applicants for design review, including Administrative Design Review, are strongly encouraged to work with their neighborhood council prior to submitting a formal application for design review with the City of Richmond.”


At the same time the Neighborhood Coordinating Council was appearing to support Cromartie's exemption increase, they also adopted a few weeks later on August 18, a resolution to support a stronger requirement for project applicants to seek neighborhood council input before review by the Design Review Board or staff administrative review (See attached MSWORD file with adopted language). When this concept was first requested by several neighborhood councils in 2002, Cromartie reacted in a October 22, 2002, email:


NO…NO…NO… We are in the process of revising the Design Review Guidelines…This request will blow up in our faces in two years if adopted and will stop the administrative process we are now working on…This is precisely why we need a Strategic Plan to block this piece meal knee jerk reactionary $#&*… Any questions??????


I continue to be the strongest advocate for “permit streamlining,” and I wholeheartedly support legitimate and effective efforts to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. However, there are some key concepts being overlooked in Cromartie’s misguided efforts to achieve efficiency. Consider the following:


1.       The most time-consuming component of processing applications is the preparation of arcane, cumbersome, over-editorialized, rambling and largely irrelevant staff reports by planning staff members. These are all well-meaning employees who have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in planning or some related field. I can tell you from personal knowledge and experience that planning programs don’t teach jack about the design of single family homes, which is what this is all about. These people were taught how to deal with large scale demographic, social, transportation and economic issues, not how to evaluate the design of a bedroom addition to a single family home. A person with a planning degree administering building design review is a fish out of water. What the Planning Department really needs are some experienced architects and contractors who understand residential design and construction, not a bunch of regional theorists writing staff reports on 500 square foot additions. Incidentally, the type of professionals who understand residential design and construction are exactly the kind of people who make up the Design Review Board. Most staff reports could be reduced to a simple checklist that takes a fraction of the time currently consumed at a fraction of the cost. The prospect of untrained and inexperienced planning staff members conducting design review without either professional or neighborhood input is downright scary.

2.       Resolving disputed designs at the neighborhood council level recognizes the special and unique character of Richmond’s diverse neighborhoods. The fact is that most residential additions end up on the Design Review Board consent calendar because they are either innocuous, or potential disputes have been resolved before they get to the Design Review Board. Cromartie delights in telling us that “staff spends 50% of its time processing small scale” projects that do not generate enough revenue to support the staff time required. What takes all this time is not going before the Design Review Board; it’s staff’s inability to cut to the chase in providing its own review. Just cutting out the Design Review Board has no assurances that staff’s internal inefficiencies or professional shortcomings will improve.

3.       What Richmond sorely lacks is a set of consensus design guidelines, perhaps adapted to each neighborhood that encourage, before the fact, the kind of design that the citizen want. That is what the Planning Department should be working on rather than disenfranchisement of those same citizens.


As an example of the ignorance and naiveté of planners when it comes to residential additions and building technology , I couldn’t help but note Cromartie’s proposed condition that:


“All residences and residential additions approved by this process shall have 30-year roofs.”


I suppose you could infer from this an interest in encouraging high quality construction, but the concept of a 30-year roof is totally undefined in the ordinance. As a long-time participant in national standards organizations, such as ASTM, dealing with building envelope technology, I can say unequivocally that such a requirement is impossible to define or enforce. These people may be pointed the right direction, but they don’t have a clue when it comes to technical details.


RNCC Revision of Tom Butt's resolution as of 6-21-2003 for design review by neighborhood councils.rtf