City Council Urges Stronger Staff Guidance, Better Communication With Planning Commission

The City Council and community members responded to Planning Commissioner David Rand's criticism of city staff during a public hearing Tuesday night.

In response to Mill Valley Planning Commissioner David Rand’s accusation of a “basic philosophical disconnect” between the commission and City Hall, the Mill Valley City Council dove into the spat Monday night and supported a number of recommendations to improve the relationship.

“I’m really hopeful moving forward that the Planning Commission and planning staff will find a way back to collegiality,” said Vice Mayor Shawn Marshall.

Rand, whose three-year term ends in March, said in his annual report to the council that the two entities are engaged in a “turf war” on issues with “different visions” for Mill Valley. He stressed the frustration of staff inadvertently endorsing a project by including a routine “recommendation for approval” on proposals that meet basic requirements. Applicants are often "surprised by the commission's lack of enthusiasm" if their proposal is denied or questioned, Rand said in January.

In his report on the matter (attached at right), City Manager Jim McCann agreed that “this is an area of uniform concern” and said staff should take a more active role in vetting applications and providing more detailed recommendations.

Like nailing Jell-O to the wall

Rand was also not alone in his frustration.

“Who is really in charge?” Rose Avenue resident Joyce Britt asked during the public hearing. She encouraged the commission to implement “objective standards” to cut down on the subjectivity of interpretations by commissioners and staff.

“Right now, you come up here with your application and it’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall,” she said. “You have no idea which way it’s going to swing.”

Kimberly Jessup of Jessup Associates Architect echoed the sentiment, saying that when it comes to getting projects approved she would appreciate a consistent approach where planning staff can provide “an honest and good shake of what my chances are,” and highlight possible concerns that the Planning Commission may have.

“It’s a challenge to come before a different Planning Commission each year and try to weave your way through that, and read their minds, and figure out what’s going to be approved,” she said.

‘More training’ misses the point entirely

In addition to the staff report recommendations, McCann also highlighted processes and procedures, communication, roles and training as areas for improvement.

“The emphasis in the report of a need for more training of commissioners misses the point entirely,” Rand said.

He referenced the 2011 request for a conditional use permit by real estate firm Alain Pinel for plans to open an office at 32 Miller Ave. Both the commission and the council rejected the proposal based on concerns that it wouldn’t increase foot traffic downtown, but city planning staff helped to rework the square footage in a way that granted it approval, Rand said. In response, the City Council passed a prohibition on all office space in downtown storefronts.

“Emergency moratoriums are not the solution,” Rand said. “That situation arose because the staff does not believe in the need for a Planning Commission in Mill Valley. Three commissioners have now told you that staff leadership has expressed that opinion to them. That is a problem. And it is not mentioned in the report before you.” 

Let's do lunch

In general, councilmembers were supportive of better and more frequent communication between the Planning Commission and the city.

“Once or twice a year, the mayor and vice mayor should go out to lunch with the chair and vice chair of the Planning Commission,” said Councilman Ken Wachtel. “Keep that connection open.”

They also agreed that the commission and staff should discuss issues before the meeting, background on past project decisions should be included in as part of the agenda packets, and the agenda packets should be distributed earlier in the week to allow enough time for members to read through lengthy documents, visit the sites if necessary, and ask questions before the meeting.

They also determined there should be clear guidelines for what constitutes a study session, and decided to impliment a performance evaluation.

“I also support a six-month review,” Marshall said. “That seems to make sense, and allows time for things to settle in and see the improvements being made.”

At the beginning of the meeting, McCann thanked Rand for his hundreds of volunteer hours each year, and his "deep commitment to the community."

“Chairman Rand’s comments have actually been very helpful to bring attention to this aspect of our service,” McCann said, “and I think from this discussion we’ll find ways to improve what we do.”

Here's what else is happening on Mill Valley Patch

  1. Shots Fired in Beer Theft Sunday at Safeway in Strawberry Village
  2. When Can I File My 2013 Tax Return?
  3. City Council Digs Into Planning Commission Spat
  4. Mill Valley’s Cheapest Homes: 15 Wordsworth Court

For local news like this wherever you go, follow us! And don't forget to sign up for our daily e-newsletter, delivered straight to your inbox.

"Like" us on Facebook | Follow us on Twitter | Sign up for the daily Mill Valley Patch newsletter | Start a blog

Ex-LADWPworker February 22, 2013 at 12:43 AM
Like nailing Jell-O to the wall. That pretty much sums up my years of watching our Mill Valley city council and planning commission at work.
Thrasy Bulus February 24, 2013 at 02:36 AM
Here and there the commission modifies a project in a way that makes it slightly less negative, but for the most part they are just a sounding board for acrimony. I'm sure most if not all of the commissioners have good intentions, but the results of the process speak for themselves. I find it amusing that criticism is leveled at the planning department for recommending for approval all 21 projects that went to the planning commission. Question for those who find this notable: what rational applicant would proceed to the planning commission stage if the planning department were not recommending approval? Obviously none. So the fact that the planning commission only approves eight out of the 21 reflects its own subjective judgement. One might argue that the commission represents the wishes of the public in these matters. In some cases this might be true. But theirs is a subjective judgment. It might be worth it if the end results were notable. But they aren't. They are mediocre at best, and more often than not downright appalling. However the real tragedy is that many property owners are precluded from making sensible and sustainable improvements to their properties by the sheer complexity and expense of the process dictated by the planning regime. Many people then sell to the builder-architect-lawyer-developer crowd, who then rip out the history and character of the community, and replace it with tasteless and boring nonsense.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something
See more »