Planning and Development Department
Released May 6, 1999
The Grand Jury was contacted by a group of citizens with specific concerns about the lack of zoning enforcement in the County of Santa Barbara. The Grand Jury expanded the investigation to include a study of the functionality of all divisions of the Planning and Development Department (P&D) with the exception of the Energy Division. The Grand Jury focused its investigation on the Development Review, Building and Safety, Comprehensive Planning and Administrative divisions.
The Grand Juryís objective was to study the P&D Departmentís operations including policies and procedures, implementation of those policies and procedures, staffing, physical workspace, interdivisional relationships, and management capabilities. The Grand Jury sought to understand the impact these functions have on the departmentís effectiveness to provide comprehensive planning and permitting in the county.
The Grand Jury reviewed previous Grand Jury reports, met with staff members from the department, interviewed the department director, made site visits to the department and viewed a demonstration of newly developed permit tracking software system. The Grand Jury spoke with members of the private sector, developers, private planning contractors, individual applicants and members of the Planning Commission. The Grand Jury reviewed information available on the P&D Departmentís web site and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) information. The Grand Jury also investigated alternative solutions to permit processing and related planning and development procedures.
To interpret these plans, the county has established environmental thresholds. These thresholds are levels of tolerance, intended to clarify and quantify the level of impact a project may have on the environment. They also are intended to aid in the development of mitigations, or conditions imposed on a project to offset and compensate for its negative effects on the environment.
The local authority for land-use planning is a politically appointed body, the Planning Commission. Each supervisor appoints a member of the community to act as his or her representative. These political appointees are not required to have exposure to the planning process and yet they review the most complex or controversial discretionary applications for compliance with CEQA and local plans and ordinances and approve or deny the projects. The Planning Commission also serves as a board of appeals for applications denied by the P&D Department. Planning Commission denials can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
The Planning Commission is authorized to create land-use policies that extend beyond what CEQA requires in the County Comprehensive Plan.
Implementation of policies adopted by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors is the responsibility of the P&D Department. To fulfill its regulatory duties, the P&D Department has six divisions, each headed by a deputy director.
In addition, different divisions, which must interact, are scattered over several floors of multiple buildings, fracturing the workflow.
The workflow of the P&D Department is also interrupted because applications and plans must be shuttled to other departments such as Fire, Environmental Health or Public Works for approval. There is not an effective provision for addressing inter-departmental involvement in the application review process.
In the case of one area, Goleta, there is more than one jurisdiction involved in planning for the area; the City of Santa Barbara controls a significant commercial portion of Goleta. The combination of rural and urban areas and cross-jurisdictional planning areas adds a level of complexity to the planning process that few counties experience. This configuration places the Board of Supervisors in a dual role, overseeing both urban and rural land use.
The services provided by the P&D Department fall into two main categories. The first is land-use planning for all the unincorporated areas of the county. The second is the practical application of those planning policies by approving or denying permits for development, building and other land uses in the county. The land use planning process drives the permit process and the permit process should be systematic, predictable, consistent and customer focused.
Frequently the planning staff, in anticipation of Planning Commission requirements, creates additional levels of unnecessary work for themselves. The staff does not want to have the project returned by the commission for rework due to missing information and therefore provides more information than is necessary. This dynamic between the Planning Commission and the department, combined with the ambiguity of land-use policies, creates a labor-intensive environment, often circular in nature.
If an applicant anticipates a project will require intense scrutiny by the department during the review process or is unfamiliar with the requirements for obtaining approval, a pre-application assessment of the project can be requested. At this time the applicant will receive a preliminary assessment of the project including documents and studies that should be submitted with the initial application. There is consensus in the private sector that this process is not effective. They feel this process can add an unnecessary layer of requirements to their applications and there is no assurance that taking advantage of this process will shorten the approval period. Because of this perception, experienced applicants frequently choose to bypass this step. Not all applicants are informed about this process.
Information is available at the departmentís counter and on the departmentís web site. This information is adequate but not organized in a manner that conveys to the applicant the complexity of the entire process. In fact, it oversimplifies what is required of an applicant. Because of the complexity of the application and review process, a significant number of applicants must hire an independent agent to guide their application through the process.
During this period of time the project may be deemed exempt from environmental review and can proceed through the land-use and building-permit stages. Some projects are automatically exempt by law, and frequently smaller projects are found to be exempt.
Larger projects or those projects that may have significant environmental impacts may either receive a negative declaration (ND) after review (no significant impacts on the environment), a negative declaration with mitigation (some impacts, but conditions are attached to mitigate the impacts), or an environmental impact report (EIR) may be required. Those projects required to have an EIR are ones where a determination has been made by staff that significant environmental impacts are present and not able to be mitigated by conditions.
The decision for an exemption from CEQA, ND or EIR is based on multiple sources. A project must pass certain "tests" or levels of impact found in the Comprehensive Plan, appropriate community plan and zoning ordinances. The quantification of those impacts is found in the County of Santa Barbara's Environmental Thresholds and Guidelines Manual, last updated in 1993. These thresholds are intended as baseline standards for making project evaluations and have a significant effect on the conditions of mitigation for environmental impacts attached to projects. In published information, the P&D Department commits to hold public workshops on environmental thresholds at least once a year to advise the public of the technical basis of the thresholds, to obtain public comment on each threshold and to gather data from the public. The last workshop was held in the first quarter of 1997.
If the project is approved, a land use permit can be issued; if construction is part of the project, building and grading permits must be issued. If a project is denied there are various levels of appeal. The County has a defined, complex hierarchy for appeals, which is available to all applicants. The Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors hears most of the appeals.
The P&D Department has publicly committed (on its web site) to the following process times:
Currently, the application review and permit process serves as an impetus for land use planning, confusing the roles of Comprehensive Planning and Development Review. While these two divisions are intimately linked, comprehensive land use planning should be addressed as a long-term, countywide activity. Patchwork planning results from mingling the two processes. This confusion of process slows the review procedure. Using application review to set new land-use policy is not an effective approach to good land-use planning.
The office of Zoning Administrator was established in 1983-84 to move less controversial issues away from the Planning Commission, speed up the permit process and shorten the Planning Commission agenda. The downstepping of approvals has not been as successful as anticipated in the view of the private sector. Problems with staff turnover, inadequately trained staff and inconsistent interpretation of policies and ordinances have delayed decision-making and increased errors in application processing.
The zoning enforcement responsibilities of this division are the ones that are the source of public controversy. This function is a reactive process driven by complaints. There are approximately 400 complaints each year. The division has 3.5 zoning inspectors responsible for verifying reported violations and advising property owners what corrective action must be taken. This section is overwhelmed with complaints and at any given time has a backlog of 300 to 400 complaints from previous years. Because of the volume of complaints and the limited staff available for inspection, only the high-profile cases get attention. Frequently, it takes more than a year to resolve a citizen complaint, and in many cases the complaints are simply not addressed.
Penalties exist for violations but, to date, none imposed have been collected. The penalties are used as a "big stick" to effect compliance and are either waived or not collected. Other infrequently used remedies include flagging the property and issuing no further building permits or referral to the District Attorney for further action.
The Building and Safety Division is composed of building inspectors, permit technicians and plan checkers.
Training for new employees is largely delegated to the division to which they are assigned, and there is no organized training plan or designated trainer to provide department-wide training. Supervising planners train junior planners and their individual interpretations of department policies are perpetuated.
The Grand Jury found new planning hires do not possess the skill set necessary to meet the job requirements as turnover of probationary employees is high. Planners should have technical skills (knowledge of laws and regulations and the ability to communicate in writing) as well as interpersonal skills such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving abilities. Lack of these skills leads to inconsistent decisions, excessive reliance on supervising planners and delays in the application review process. By way of example, there are no personnel in any division of the P&D Department who are trained in efficient and economical agricultural land-use and grading processes. This is surprising given the size of the rural area and the presence of a vital agricultural economy in the county.
There is insufficient staff cross-training within the divisions and virtually no inter-divisional communication. While employees from time to time change divisions, bringing with them previous knowledge, there is no formal attempt to acquaint employees in one division with the goals and responsibilities of other divisionsónor is there any attempt by management to create a team environment. This lack of understanding and cooperation does not contribute to the development of a cohesive department.
For example, the Comprehensive Development Division creates policy standards for reviewing plans. The Development Review Division does not always understand how those standards can be converted to practical mitigating conditions that they apply to projects. And, finally, those mitigating conditions imposed by Development Review may not be able to be realistically implemented in the field, causing frustration for the Building and Safety Division, which makes site inspections.
Department manuals and information are available for new hires but most of the material the Grand Jury reviewed was seriously out of date. Many documents still referred to the department as the Resource Management Department. (The department acquired its current name in 1993.) In particular, documents intended to serve as technical references, such as the "Environmental Thresholds" document, have not been updated for six years or more. The Comprehensive Plan, comprised of many elements, was put in place in 1980 and has not received a major review since then.
Over the last three years (through February 1999) there has been a 33% turnover in the department. During the same period, two of the key divisions, Building and Safety and Development Review have experienced a major increase in workload, resulting in a significant cumulative workload. The turnover rate in the Development Review division has been 47% and Building and Safety has also had a high turnover percentage, 30%. Compounding these high division turnovers is the fact that Development Review has experienced a 100% turnover at the supervisory level. This statistic is particularly significant because the supervising planners are responsible for training entry-level planners.
Multiple reasons have been given for the high turnover: higher salaries in other jurisdictions, employees leaving the area, employees leaving for the private sector, personal reasons, stress, etc. Turnover of this nature is intolerable and must be corrected. When analyzing employee turnover, the department should look closely at management leadership, working conditions and training. These elements are critical in maintaining high staff morale and a productive and satisfied staff.
The combination of high turnover, inconsistent or nonexistent training, outdated materials and increased workload create a working environment that is stressful and inefficient. This in turn leads to further employee turnover, poor morale and job dissatisfaction, exacerbating the problems faced in performing departmental tasks.
Each division is seen as a separate entity rather than an integral part of the department. Lack of clear direction for the divisions contributes to the fact that deputy directors often assume authority for responsibilities that are not intended to belong to their division or in some cases even the department.
Because of this approach, department decision-making is often inconsistent, the deputy directors can set policy that is in conflict with the departmentís stated policy and, consequently, the department does not function efficiently or effectively.
County land-use planning is left up to the local areas by the state, and the battle for policies and procedures that govern land use is focused on the P&D Department, creating a politically-charged environment. The director has not created a departmental structure in which issues regarding land-use policies can be clearly understood, predictable, consistent and efficiently implemented.
Also, the department has not provided mechanisms for easily resolving conflict in a manner that will reasonably satisfy all parties involved. This task demands strong leadership from the Board of Supervisors as well as the department director, especially in the area of providing specific guidelines for the development of clear and comprehensible policy.
The Board of Supervisors, the County Administrator and the P&D Department must take stock of their organization in these areas and change those elements of operation which are contributing to the degradation of the process, even if it means reassignment or dismissal of personnel.
Comprehensive Planning and Development Review also have a conflict. Since Comprehensive Planningís tasks are long-range planning, Comprehensive Plan update and the conceptual aspects of planning, they should be removed from the day-to-day evaluation of specific projects. In fact, they participate in almost 75% of Development Reviewís projects. Division managers cite the inexperience of the Development Review staff as the reason for the encroachment of Comprehensive Planning into the duties of Development Review. Another reason given for this overlap in divisional functions is the lack of guidelines for appropriate division responsibility.
However, the development community also contributes to the problem. Understanding the shortcomings of the department and the unpredictable levels of review, developers design projects with elements they know are unacceptable, anticipating mitigations that will substantially change the project. Often, they deliberately submit incomplete applications to "get in line" for approval. These actions unnecessarily increase the departmentís workload by creating needless initial work and frequent rework of applications and the cycle of inefficiency continues.
The agricultural community, which operates on a time-sensitive schedule, frequently proceeds with grading or other agricultural conversions without permits fearing a lengthy process time for appropriate permits or a denial based on arbitrary policies. Members of the agricultural community choose to pay the fines and suffer other consequences rather than missing the opportunity to plant a crop in a time for the growing season.
The departmentís philosophy is to work with projects as submitted to make unacceptable projects into projects that can be approved. In the view of the department, many projects should be summarily denied at the outset. Summary denials can be directly appealed to the Board of Supervisors and are considered politically unpopular with the Supervisors. More effort is required from both sides to work collaboratively to submit applications for projects that are complete and can be approved in a timely manner.
Conflicts are inherent in the planning process. The community is not in agreement over the type, quantity and speed of growth and there has been no attempt to separate those elements that are non-controversial in the process. Too often the department uses divergent community feelings about growth and inadequate staffing as convenient excuses for poor performance, overlooking organizational structure as the root cause of its problems.
It is unacceptable that the P&D Department has not been able to organize to provide effective services for its customers. It is apparent that the divisions lack a clear definition of their charters and interviewees from the department have told the Grand Jury there is no unified direction for its divisions. Divisions often have conflicting goals and understandings of what the departmentís unified goal is, negating effective inter-divisional cooperation.
The basis for the intrusion of Comprehensive Planning into the Development Review area, new or untrained staff, is not sufficient reason for commingling the activities of each division. This "solution" to the inexperienced staff problem actually, in the Grand Juryís view, exacerbates the departmentís other problems. The department must realize that greater separation of the planning process from the application review and permitting process is fundamental to correcting problems noted in this report.
For the last decade the P&D Department has been unable to deliver timely, consistent services. Political controversy, inconsistent management, outdated plans, policies and procedures, a disorganized and crowded working environment and mixed messages from the Board of Supervisors have contributed to poor departmental performance, excessive turnover, low staff morale and disgruntled applicants. Attempts to correct internal problems have been unsuccessful.
All interviewees were in agreement that operational problems exist in the P&D Department. A variety of reasons were given for this breakdown in process. They ranged from management issues to political agendas within the County and the department. However, the most frequently cited reasons were the uniqueness of the character of the County and the level of sophistication of the citizenry. This mind set serves as a convenient excuse for lack of corrective action. No matter how unique a community or how active its citizens, a process must be designed that works and takes these factors into account.
This situation has gone on too long. The Grand Jury found the Board of Supervisors is content to let the problems continue creating an adversarial planning environment to the detriment of the community. The existing situation calls for drastic corrective action within the P&D Department and an updated working plan for land use in the countyóone that the majority of the community can support, meets long-term land-use needs for the future and is consistent, predictable and efficient.
b) The Board of Supervisors, together with the department, should update all land-use policies and ordinances, include EIRs with community plans and implement a regular schedule for review and revision.
b) The director should exercise more leadership of the deputy directors to ensure that departmental policies are being implemented as intended.
c) Deputy directors should clearly define division processes to ensure that consistent findings and mitigations are presented that actually reflect the policies of the department.
d) The Planning Commission should adopt a mediation or mandatory arbitration requirement as part of the application appeals process.
b) The director should initiate a dialogue with the development community that results in practical actions and a more collaborative process. This could include opportunities for the private sector to provide seminars for planners on issues that drive project designs.
b) The director and the deputy directors should commit at the outset of a project to a fee estimate that includes a "not-to-exceed" cap.
c) The director should implement a detailed billing for P&D services, which offers a full explanation of services received for fees charged.
b) The director should enforce and collect zoning fines. Fines levied for zoning violations should not be routinely waived.
c) The Board of Supervisors should permit zoning fines to remain in the department to be used to fund additional positions for zoning enforcement officers.
d) The director should consider contracting zoning-enforcement activities out to the private sector.
Findings 2, 8, 9
Recommendations 2a, 2b, 8c, 9
Planning and Development Department
Findings 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
Recommendations 1, 2b, 2c, 3a, 3b, 3c, 3d, 4, 5, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 7c, 8a, 8b, 8d, 9
Recommendations 3a, 3d