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Public Remains Skeptical of Design Review Board and Planning Commission Merger

After temporarily losing momentum at the end of July (Design Review and Planning Commission Merger Temporarily Stalls Out, July 31, 2008), the proposed Design Review Board and Planning Commission Merger got another airing at a meeting intended to solicit input from the public.

Brought to you by the same five councilmembers who approved a secret agreement with Chevron and scotched openable windows on the rehabilitated City Hall, the merger continues to be seen by the public as a solution looking for a problem.

The Chevron Five appears intent on bringing merger to a final vote before the election in November. The loss of even one of the three incumbents supporting the merger (Bates, Marquez and Sandhu) would likely result in its rapid demise.

Following is the West County Times coverage of the public meeting:

Merger of two Richmond commissions prompts concerns over mega-sized houses

By Katherine Tam
West County Times

Article Launched: 09/26/2008 04:12:49 PM PDT

A draft Richmond law for reviewing subdivisions, commercial buildings and other proposed developments is stirring fears that jumbo houses will be allowed to rise in neighborhoods mostly populated by smaller homes.

In the Richmond Annex, where most houses are 700 to 1,200 square feet, residents say the proposal would allow people to double or triple the sizes of their homes without public hearings or reviews by a citizens board. Ultimately, they worry such additions will hurt the character of their neighborhood.

"People need to be able to register an opinion," resident Bill Pinkham said. "It'll take a little bit longer, but the results will be much more satisfactory if neighbors get a say."

The City Council plans to merge the citizens-based Design Review Board and the Planning Commission to address complaints that the review process is "cumbersome, confusing and time-consuming." Neighborhood groups oppose the merger.

Under a draft ordinance slated to reach city leaders as early as Oct. 21, the Design Review Board would be eliminated and its duties transferred to a new, seven-member Planning Commission. Three Planning Commission members would sit on a design review committee, which would hold public hearings and make recommendations to the full commission.

New applications for residential or commercial buildings would fall into one of three categories, depending on their size and location. For example, city planners would decide if new houses and additions less than 2,000 square feet would receive permits. Houses and additions from 2,000 to 3,000 square feet would be studied by a zoning administrator with a public hearing. Anything larger than 3,000 square feet would be reviewed by the Planning Commission's design review committee.

Currently, the Design Review Board looks at all proposed houses or additions larger than 1,200 square feet.

About 20 residents attended a city meeting Thursday evening to provide input. The thresholds to trigger a public hearing are too high and must be lowered, residents said. In addition, the public should be able to appeal projects subject to staff review.

Many acknowledged that the existing system needs improvement.

For example, too many incomplete applications come before the Design Review Board, which means the process is delayed when the board must send the documents back for more work.

But the residents, including some who helped form the Design Review Board more than a decade ago, said a merger isn't the solution. They fear the workload will be too hefty for one commission, scaring off community members who might want to serve on that body. And they worry that projects won't get sufficient scrutiny.

"What they all add up to is less resident participation and that's not the way the city should go," said Sandi Genser-Maack, past president of the Richmond Neighborhood Coordinating Council, which opposes the merger. "It should be going in the opposite direction. We need more resident participation."

To give feedback on a proposed ordinance that would nix Richmond's Design Review Board and transfer its duties to a new, seven-member Planning Commission, mail written comments to Planner Janet Harbin, Richmond Planning and Building Services, 1401 Marina Way South, Richmond, CA 94804. Comments also can be e-mailed to jharbin@ci.richmond.ca.us.
The proposed ordinance is scheduled to reach the Planning Commission at its Oct. 16 study session, before moving to the City Council as early as Oct. 21.