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The Permit Streamlining Masquerade

I dropped by the County's new addition to Ukiah's “vast air-conditioned nightmare created by pre-human or sub-human monsters in a delirium of greed” known as the County Admin Center last Tuesday. (Apologies to Henry Miller who wrote this observation of America after his 25,000-mile trip through the US in 1941). I wanted to hear the Board of Supervisors' timed agenda item entitled “Discussion and Possible Action Regarding the Mendocino County Permit Streamlining Project.” 

Permit Streamlining is the current state euphemism for dumping, ignoring, and/or violating environmental protection laws under the guise of making the permit process “user friendly” and California more “business friendly.” I'd been hearing rumors of what was planned locally. It's all been quite mysterious, with no hard copy of anything available to the public.

The County of Mendocino currently administers 74 different permits generated from four separate departments. Add permits from special fire districts and/or the State Department of Forestry for rural dweller-builders and you have the oft-supposed manifestation of a bureaucracy run amok. Those obsessed with lining their pockets by building more monstrosities and atrocities with rampant pomposity, along with their government lackeys who would like to deflect their responsibility for not being able to help their buddies get around environmental protection laws, have had the task of getting the public to join in as a Greek chorus chanting, “needless government over-regulation” and “those damned environmentalists are to blame.”

Pre land-use law old-timers; novice urbanites accustomed to having their tidy little parcels all approved with roads, water, sewer, utilities in place; the small-time contractor trying to come out ahead, and the financially strapped owner-builder are sitting ducks for picking up the “Streamline, streamline” chant. Inconsistent (depending on who you talk to) information, unexplained forms, high fees, delays, conditions and restrictions in a deliberately mismanaged department can force even experienced builders to tremble at the altar of Mendocino County Building and Planning bureaucracy. Add a member of the public's concern that environmental and/or the County's land use laws are being ignored by staff and the chorus of misplaced blame increases by ten-fold and ten decibels.

The mission of the County's Permit Streamlining Steering Committee, Working Group, and Users Group, which have been meeting now for the last year or so, is to “identify permit and code revisions that would lead to a more business responsive and friendly regulatory environment without compromising environmental protection.” Yours truly was responsible for the “without compromising the environment” part, but that's another story.

Staff's presentation of its and the committee's recommendations ate up the items reserved hour. Staff carefully sidestepped (by not mentioning) the environmental and economic impact landmines contained within the 25 separate recommendations. With the clock running overtime into another timed agenda item, 4th District Supervisor Patti Campbell jumped in, pronounced the groups' suggestions environmentally sound, and directed staff to go ahead and continue working (read implement the recommendations). Board Chair Charles Peterson blanched, while the remaining board members gave no indication of anything other than that that their bodies were in the room.

Peterson patiently explained to Campbell that the Board members needed an opportunity to discuss this item. Campbell responded with, “What's to discuss? It's my understanding that this item is informational only to the Board and the group is to continue working.” Peterson countered that he had ten specific concerns that he wished to bring to the Board and staff. He continued to patiently explain to Campbell that this process would be done five times altogether so that each board member would have an opportunity to comment on the agenda item. 

Campbell re-revved her steamroller. Peterson countered by pointing out that the clock had run out and he thought there were also members of the public who wished to speak. Supervisor Shoemaker then came to life with, “I'd like to hear from the public.”

Peterson finally threw his authority as Board Chair in front of Campbell and insisted that the Permit Streamlining recommendations would be scheduled for discussion for an entire afternoon sometime in the future.

Why was Campbell so desperate to do away with her fellow Board members' participation, public comment, and get the show on the road? One explanation is that Campbell was expected by Campbell's PG&E manager husband, Peter Caton, who is one of the driving forces behind all this as a steering committee member, to slam dunk this one. The duplicitous duo perfected this public committee/elected representative relay race method of bringing home the goodies to the right-wing scofflaws over here in Fort Bragg when Campbell was mayor. (PG&E will call in its chits as it's forced to divest itself of its monopoly in the wake of current utility deregulation.) On the committees, besides some County staff, are: Max Schlienger (Retech), Parnum Paving, Masonite, Rinehart Oil, and a smattering of Ukiah realtors, with Ray Hall driving the bus.

The following are the actual and potential landmines Campbell is so purposefully attempting to greenwash.

Item A — under “Measures Recommended by the Permit Streamlining Working Group and/or the Director,” proposes to eliminate the County Code requirement of “proof of water” for 2nd residential units. Apparently, there is a Supervisorial subcommittee currently reviewing “proof of water” requirements for single family dwellings. This committee is considering eliminating or lowering the well capacity/quality standards for “proof of water” before a single family dwelling building permit can be approved, because water can be purchased from independent water haulers. Currently many coastal residents purchase water from these unregulated haulers, especially in the late summer/fall because the coastal water table has lowered due to the drought, increased development up watershed, and/or contamination. The idea being, Why should lack of water be a constraint to development when water can be purchased from water haulers, some of whom free-draft from local rivers?

Item B — proposes to “Amend the County Code to eliminate Planning Commission review of appeals from Minor Subdivision Committee or staff determinations.”

Item C — proposes to “Amend County Code to provide the Planning Commission with the authority to approve or deny major subdivisions.” Currently the Board of Supes approves, conditions, or denies major subdivisions. The proposed change means an appeal fee would have to be paid in order to have the Supes review the Planning Commission's decision.

Item E — proposes to change the County Code eliminating mandated Archaeological Commission review of development in areas designated as having historical or potential historical importance.

Item G — proposes to initiate amendments to the Local Coastal Plan to allow a greater range of business entities to qualify as home occupations or cottage industries. (Want a Retech factory in your neighborhood?)

Item I — proposes to Amend Categorical Exclusion maps to expand geographical areas for a single family home exemption from from the Coastal development permit process.

It is also proposed that commercial and industrial project applications be given priority over all the other residential applications, and that second residential unit permits be issued as part of the building permit process thereby eliminating the administrative review permit (and review).

The rest of the recommendations — pre-application meetings, timely application review, interdepartment access to project data, cross training staff in various departments (so the right hand knows what the left is doing), customer satisfaction training, consistent fire district standards, project information check lists, a “How to Get a Permit” booklet, developing educational materials... are ideas that took many months for the committee members to rip off from rank and file staff and call their own. You'd think that over the years Ray Hall, as the 20-year department head of County Building and Planning, at a salary of $100,000+, might have noticed these painfully obvious ways to “improve customer service” ... something the rank and file staff has known and tried to do for years, despite their boss. 

They want the public out of their way, so they're ramroding their rightwing agenda under a populist banner and packaging it inside some obvious and long overdue staff fixes, hoping no one will look at the real changes too closely.

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn February 18, 2020

    The County of Lake adopted its own “Environmental Protection Guidelines” some time in the ’70s, uses the “mitigated negative declaration” to “condition” major use permits, but does not comply with CEQA §15074(d) — mitigation monitoring and reporting plan.

    Just bring the money and the plan, address all the questions in the Initial Study, and don’t forget the money!

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