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.”
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