Our development review process has been broken for years. I have first-hand experience with the process, not as a developer, but as a resident. I’ve been to many DRC meetings where the DRC helped the applicant improve a project. The new Denny’s, for example, did not fit into the College Area as it was originally proposed. The DRC made smart, helpful suggestions to the materials used on the exterior, so it looked less like an anonymous corporate shell. I’ve also asked the DRC not to use their power over design to kill a project outright. Twice I advocated for the Drive-Thru Starbucks, on Day Road, and more recently, for the Tides apartments planned just across the street. Many projects have been bogged down at the DRC, but for the past couple years, that has been largely a function of understaffing in the Planning Department.
After years of complaints from both residents and developers, Council hired the Matrix Consulting Group to study our process in depth, and identify ways to streamline and update the process. The Matrix Report was delivered in November of last year.
I support nearly every recommendation of the Matrix Report. The biggest concern I have is with Recommendation #4, to “Develop and adopt new objective guidelines that specifically define the design elements that the City desires to regulate.” It’s not clear what that means. It’s listed as Extremely High Priority, estimated to take only 300 hours of staff time, and be completed by Summer 2020.
If the purpose is adopt objective design guidelines, it will require more than a thousand hours of staff time, and more than a year to complete. It will also require dozens of hours of community meetings. Indeed, staff has recently suggested it would require hiring a consultant, which will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Council must revisit the Matrix recommendations that will be affected by the widening scope of recommendation #4.
We should implement the Matrix recommendations, but some of them have hefty price tags, such as renovating offices at City Hall and moving departments around, or spending millions of dollars to upgrade the Energov software package. Those recommendations were received warmly in the winter, but between this year’s budget shortfall, and the $11 million reduction in next year’s budget, we need to accept that we can’t do more with less. We have to do less with less. Council should not renovate offices or spend millions from the General Fund on a software upgrade while Public Safety positions are being cut.
Design Review Committee and Historic Preservation Committee
While I support nearly all of the recommendations in the Matrix report, I would not go further. I do not support suspending or disbanding the Design Review Committee or Historic Preservation Committee. We will always need their expert advice, and we are fortunate to have subject matter experts that volunteer their time to review projects and keep Ventura beautiful.
City Council decides what falls within their purview, and City Council can adjust that. The DRC and HPC are authorized by ordinance, and those ordinances can be amended if Council wishes to narrow the scope of their remit. Council can — and should — use their power to create an unambiguous process, rather than empower one department head to decide which projects can bypass the DRC.
Broadly speaking, if we want to prohibit or restrict drive-thrus, for example, that’s a topic for the Planning Commission. They should agendize it, take public input, discuss and deliberate, and forward a recommendation to Council. It should be either an allowed use, or conditional, or not allowed, and whether or not a project with a drive-thru goes forward should not depend on who serves on the DRC. I would be happy to see drive-thrus and other auto-centric features considered and debated, with a policy outlining under what conditions they are allowed, and what the process is for approval. And then Planning Commission and Council pass that policy, and we stick to it. We must develop objective design guidelines that cover some of the controversial or problematic design elements, from drive-thrus to stucco finishes to vinyl windows to faux stone.
For the last couple years, the members of the DRC were actively working with the Planning Department to reduce the burden staff shouldered in preparing for and following up after DRC meetings. Unfortunately, before those improvements could be fully realized, the mass exodus from the Planning Department slowed project development to a crawl. There were several projects where the committee members insisted the record reflect that it took five or six months just to make it to a DRC hearing. The DRC was unfairly blamed for project delays caused by the departure of a half dozen key staff members.
Emergency Ordinance, May 2020
In May, Council passed an emergency ordinance which implements some of the key Matrix recommendations; I supported each piece of that ordinance, which expires in a year. The ordinance reduced DRC’s role to that of an advisory body, and shunts some decisions away from the DRC and to the Community Development Director for ministerial action, or to an Administrative Hearing Officer for a small public hearing.
Council and staff reassured the public that the purpose of this emergency ordinance was to help local businesses make necessary adjustments to cope with the social distancing requirements of Covid-19. I am watching closely as projects are rerouted through the new process. I oppose any permanent streamlining that diminishes public participation or transparency in the development review process.