Growth, cooperation essential to county’s future

By Union Democrat staff June 09, 2010 10:52 am
    The grinding recession from which Tuolumne County is only now beginning to emerge was barely a twinkle in Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s eye in mid-2007.
    That’s when the DPRT held its first meeting.
    For the uninitiated, that would be the Development Process Review Team — a distinctly bureaucratic, somewhat forboding name for a committee that’s actually made a difference in how business is done in the A.N. Francisco Building.
    The Francisco Building is home to the county’s development-related departments and, at least before the DPRT era, was something of a haunted house for local builders.
    Although the relationship between developers and those that regulate them are problematic in any community, clients of the Tuolumne County Community Development Department swore it was worse in the ANF Building’s halls.
    “Business unfriendly,” was how that climate was described at the time.
    In a lot of communities, regulators might just shrug and carry on, oblivious to delays, cost overruns and other problems they might be creating for customers.
    But in Tuolumne County, these concerns were not only listened to but acted upon.
    County Administrator Craig Pedro opened a dialog with members of the Tuolumne County Building Industry Association and others in the development community. This led to creation of the DPRT.
    This Team, a group of county officials, builders, surveyors, developers and real estate agents, held its first meeting on July 18, 2007, and has met 21 times since. And, no, it hasn’t dismantled the county’s regulations or set up countywide rule-free zone.
    Instead, it explored ways the county could makes things easier for applicants while assuring that development is orderly, consistent with the General Plan and not harmful to the environment.
    It has been a success.
    New lines of communication have opened up, processing times for applications have improved, expiration dates for existing permits have been lifted, rules for second (inlaw) homes have been eased and more areas are being explored in the team’s quarterly meetings. Its reception has been good.
    “How often do you see government going to business and saying ‘What can I do for you?’” said George Segarini, president of the Tuolumne County Chamber of Commerce. “Not very often.”
    And the timing couldn’t be better.
    As it is, the builders and developers took a huge hit with the recession and the collapse of the housing market. Tuolumne County building permits plummeted from 415 in 2005 to a woeful 49 in 2009.
    Numbers are better this year, but more flexible rules and a business-friendly environment can’t alone turn the building and housing economy around. Still, especially when in combination with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority’s promotional and business-recruiting efforts, they do help.
    The increased cooperation, said Mark Banks of Banks Glass, is “a step in getting the county back to work.”
    Although one DPRT critic feared the county was getting “too cozy” with builders and that sprawl and ill-conceived development could result, that seems unlikely.
    Instead the team and its efforts are a welcome recognition that prosperity, growth and cooperation are essential to Tuolumne County’s overall health.