Wednesday Sep 14 2011
City takes aim at public input
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
Ordinances could reduce or eliminate public hearings, notices
The city of Rocklin is moving forward on a series of proposed ordinances that could reduce or eliminate public hearings and notices in some key processes. The Rocklin Planning Commission and the City Council met in a rare joint session last Tuesday to brainstorm ideas. The city wants to know how far the commissioners and council members are willing to go to change ordinances on handling public notices, special events permits and design reviews for building permits. Council member Scott Yuill explained why businesses need a streamlined design review process in these hard economic times. “We have a very onerous process now where virtually everything has to go through,” Yuill said. “So it becomes extremely cost prohibitive, especially for some blighted areas to improve their buildings. That’s the driving force behind it.” Rocklin Community Development Director Sherri Abbas told city officials the building permit process for a 10,000-square-foot building project, on average, takes a year to evaluate before it gets to the planning commission — at a cost upwards of $10,000. “There isn’t very much you can build in the city of Rocklin that doesn’t require you to go to the Planning Commission first,” Abbas said. She said some businesses are choosing not to update aging buildings to avoid the fees as well as the lengthy process. Rocklin landlord Jill Gayaldo, who owns a metal building used for a mechanic shop on Pacific Street, said she was discouraged by the fees required to allow her to upgrade the building. “I think the neighbors would be thrilled if we were to (add) stucco, but then we look at the $8,000 (city) fee,” Gayaldo said. “We might think about investing and making things look a little better if you’ll make it reasonable.” One proposal is to give Rocklin planning staff the authority to approve new building permits for projects up to 10,000-square-feet. That would bypass the Planning Commission and any public hearing on a proposed project. “If we were doing it at the staff level there is a lot less work involved,” Abbas said. “There is no staff report, no advertising, no state mandated time frames where you have to post the environmental documents. All that kind of stuff goes away because we aren’t involved in that process.” Former longtime City Council member Kathy Lund told city officials it might be a shock for neighbors to discover a new project without prior notification. “I think you need to let the people know what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” Lund said. Planning Commissioner Jeff Shirhall agreed with Lund. “My greatest concern is the ability of the public to have input,” Shirhall said. The city is also considering eliminating public input by giving city staff the authority to approve proposed exterior design changes for businesses. “If Kmart wants to put a second story on their building, according to this, (staff) could approve it,” Council member Peter Hill said. Hill suggested setting a limit on a project size. “I understand there is some issue about letting people know about what new buildings are going to be like in their neighborhood or in their area. But I don’t really have a problem with designating some limit on size and allowing the staff to approve it with the design guidelines that you have,” Hill said. The design guidelines staff proposed to follow were not made public at the meeting. Planning Commissioner Ralph Coleman said he wanted staff to have the authority to approve remodel projects only. “On a remodel the project is already there and the public has a pretty good idea of what the project looks like today and may have a conception of what it looks like with a new roof,” Coleman said. “On an all new building they don’t know. To eliminate the public hearing, to give the public a chance to know what’s coming down the pike, I think, would be remiss.” Local developer consultant Mark Pearlberger said streamlining the design review process would be beneficial to Rocklin businesses, if done right. “You can have the ability to actually make things work better for people trying to do business and still preserve the look and feel of the city,” Pearlberger told city officials during the meeting. Pearlberger represents developer Donahue Schriber, who has faced litigation after the approval of several large strip mall projects on both sides of I-80 and Sierra College Boulevard. “I’d love a cheaper, quicker approval process for development, period,” Pearlberger said. Staff proposes to eliminate postings of public meeting at the post office on Pacific Street, the Safeway on Granite Drive and the Fire Station on Rocklin Road. That would mean only the City’s Administration building would have a designated spot for public notices. Hill said sometimes the sign posting is the only way citizens get to know about a project. “Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that that’s how they stumbled onto the fact that there was something going to happen. They say, ‘I saw it on the sign,’” Hill said. “Could there be a middle ground?” The city also wants to reduce public notification when someone tries to get a special use permit for something like a sidewalk sale, craft expo or Christmas tree sale. Abbas told the city officials at the meeting, the city would like to reduce the number of notifications sent to neighboring parties from 600 feet around the event site to 300 feet. According to city documents, the change would align itself with state law. Council would still approve flea markets, carnivals, festivals, outdoor dances, fairs, circuses athletic events and rodeos. Even so, Abbas said the current practice seems to be working. “In the 18 years since we’ve had that code we’ve not had one appeal of a special event permit. Not one on the administrative level,” Abbas said. “What that tells me is that we are regulating these uses appropriately and there isn’t an impact.” City staff also want to generalize the city’s required project postings to include only the city’s phone number and website for further information rather than the proposed project details for any passersby. “It’s a plastic pouch on the side of the sign,” Abbas said. “We’ve had vandalism problems; they get ripped off. They get full of rain in the wintertime.” The proposed permit and public notice changes would require an amendment to the zoning code. Before that can happen, however, public hearings would be held before the Planning Commission and City Council. It’s unclear when the proposed new ordinances will come up for a vote.