Friday, October 29, 2010

The Californian Labyrinth – Part 2

Last week I pointed out the number of state agencies and boards that are either indirectly involved or directly control and/or influence the development industry in California. There are over 75 of these agencies. Those, combined with the 59 counties and 478 incorporated cities, form a significant bulwark to mount while trying to move a development forward. While I am a proponent of local control over development it is my impression that these local agencies have now taken on the role of gatekeeper. This reminds me of the bouncer at the head of a line to a night club – you ain’t on the list, you ain’t getting in!

These local planning departments use their home-bred categories to try and slice the planning effort into thin manageable bits as opposed to looking at the whole. And, at the same time, the phrasing for these categories confuses and, at times, alarms the residents. And because there is not a statewide uniformity of these categories that defines and details land uses, one city’s Mixed Use and another’s Mixed Use can and do mean different things. Some communities have more than six levels of multi-family housing based on density, users, and height.

In residential development there are only two basic types of housing: rental and ownership. Within each of these there is single-family and multi-family. These are further defined by whether the residential units are attached to each other or not. From here on it is a free-for-all and confusing miasma of chopping each of the housing types into smaller and smaller bits until we have categories so focused that it is impossible to see their logic and reason. I am working in a community with a hillside ordinance so complex Stephen Hawking could write a paper on the subject.

How should we look at this? Leave it alone? Make wholesale changes across the state? Force counties and communities into a set of rules and land use ordinances? Sounds awfully Big Brother, but as it is said, “We are from the government and we are here to help.” Some direction is needed. Scroll through and call up any number of cities and review their individual listings for residential districts (or other term). As I said, one city’s horse is another’s camel.

The state has review control and approval for all county and city General Plans. This is required by state law. I would suggest that over an extended period of time, say ten years, that the various codes and categories conform to a standard list of definitions, categories, and district designations. Obviously Modesto would have little need for a hillside ordinance like those found in Woodside, but then again waterfront uses for San Francisco have little bearing in Barstow. Am I stirring up a tempest in a tea pot—probably. But my goal here is to stand back and thin out the costly confusion that is generated by these, and at times conflicting, ordinances and districts.

As we come out of these difficult times we will be faced with the inevitable backlog and pressure to move quickly with housing and commercial development. It is going to happen. My concern is that simple things, like land use categories, will become more and more complicated out of the fear of doing wrong rather than doing right or . . . doing anything at all. Are land use definitions development barriers or opportunities? I fear that they have become barriers in most cities.

The most famous city in America, poster child if you wish, for “no” zoning is Houston, Texas. I am not sure how true this is. The marketplace can and does do a very good job of controlling adjacent land uses. It is hard to sell detached housing next to urban high rise. In fact an aerial view shows that Huston is not unlike others in the United States of the same size and structure. I know we are different and special here in California, but get over it.

I suggest that a simplification is in order. Basic categories that broadly define the land use permitted and then require the proponent to show how they perform in that category. Isn’t that why we have planning commissions and city councils? Unfortunately I also know that planning staffs use these categories to exert their opinions and planning trends into the process and push the newest and latest fad they learned at the last American Planning Association meeting on TODs, TNDs, Greenfields Developments, LEED certifications, and the latest trick: Form-Based Codes. All try to explain and codify the messy process of change and growth.

Much of this process is fee driven and is a source of significant revenues for the various agencies. Just look what has happened to counties and cities during this collapse in the housing industry. No fees plus no permits equals massive staff reductions – or at least in cities that imagined unlimited growth. Witness many Central Valley and Inland Empire communities and their problems.

I will try to delve into this more during my next blog and lay out a more simplified list of categories for land use. It is daunting but then again much of California grew, expanded and prospered over the last hundred and fifty years under far, far fewer controls than we have today.

Stay Tuned . . . .

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