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Design Review and Planning Commission Merger Temporarily Stalls Out

With one member of the Viramontes five (Lopez) not in attendance to assure a majority vote, the merger of Design Review and Planning Commission has been put off at least until October while City staff seeks additional public input, including study by the existing Planning Commission and Design Review Board. The merger, which also includes a raising of the threshold for projects requiring Design Review has been largely driven by Maria Viramontes, supported by the Viramontes Five. See Design Review as we Know it About to Bite the Dust, July 27, 2008.

So unpopular that it received not a single supporting testifier at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the proposal has been characterized as a solution looking for a problem. Some of the fatal flaws of the draft ordinance pointed out by Councilmembers and the public included:

1.    Projects that now require a hearing before only the Design Review Board would require twice as many hearings in the future, one before the Design Review Subcommittee and one before the entire Design Review Board. Design Review Subcommittee members would have to sit through both.

2.    If only one person is absent from the three-person Design Review Subcommittee, there would be no quorum and no hearing, resulting in even more delays.

3.    Design Review Guidelines that were supposed to be part of the package have not been completed. The most common reason for appeals under the present system are issues of views and privacy, but no guidelines or polices have bee proposed to reduce the ambiguities, subjectivities and controversies they generate.

4.    The current system has evolved because the public demanded more scrutiny and more involvement, not less.

5.    The Design Review Board has been unfairly blamed for requiring multiple reviews of projects, but in fact, it is largely the City staff sending incomplete and flawed applications to the Design Review Board that has caused these delays. See Richmond Design Review Board Slams Planning Staff for Processing Incomplete Applications, November 2, 2007.

Following is the West County Times’ coverage of the issue:

Merger of Richmond's development review panels begins

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 07/30/2008 05:47:35 PM PDT

Richmond officials are starting down the path toward merging the city's two commissions responsible for reviewing subdivisions, commercial developments, environmental studies and other projects, a decision that some residents fear will truncate public participation.

The City Council on Tuesday introduced legal changes that would eliminate the Design Review Board and transfer its duties to a new, seven-member Planning Commission. Officials yielded to public pleas to wait on any approvals until neighborhood groups have time to study the proposal.

City planners will seek public comment while the council recesses in August; the issue is scheduled to return for consideration in October.

Prompting the merger were complaints that the city's review of land-related applications is "cumbersome, confusing and time-consuming," mostly because many projects go before both the Design Review Board and Planning Commission, city staff members said. A council majority agreed last year to merge the two.

But some residents fear projects will get less public scrutiny. The review process does have some flaws and inefficiencies, but merging the two bodies would create a workload too hefty for one commission to handle, they said.

"The word 'streamline' makes me laugh. It means less public input," said Richmond resident Rosemary Corbin, a former mayor. "The Design Review Board and Planning Commission have heavy, difficult and unique charges. They function well on behalf of the citizens until you decided to gut them. Your complaints about streamlining or improving the process can be done with the existing division of the two boards."

Garland Ellis, who sits on the Richmond Annex Neighborhood Council, said the city should not regress to a past when residents didn't know about new houses and other developments until they popped up in neighborhoods.

The Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, a coalition of about 30 neighborhood groups in town, opposes the merger.

Under the proposed changes, the Planning Commission would be made up of seven members appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

Commissioners would serve three-year terms and no more than three terms in a row.

Three members would sit on a design review committee that holds public hearings and makes recommendations to the full commission.

The proposed guidelines outline which projects city staff can review on their own, which ones can be reviewed by a city planner with a public hearing, and which ones are significant enough that they must go before the design review committee for vetting and then to the full Planning Commission for a vote.

The specific thresholds for each of those levels would change current practices and is part of what is stirring some neighborhood concern.

For example, the existing Design Review Board studies proposed houses that are more than 1,200 square feet.

Under the new configuration, new houses less than 2,000 square feet would be studied by city planners.