County disbands planning panels

Written by Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat February 06, 2013 12:16 pm

Tuolumne County will trim back a number of committees and commissions that review local planning issues, despite public requests to keep many in place.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday OK’d eliminating three of the county’s four area planning commissions, as well as all of the county’s four design review committees.

The board, which took separate votes on eight proposed changes to the county’s planning process, also voted to change the makeup of its planning committee and make minor changes to the Historic Preservation Review Commission. 

The decisions came after a lengthy meeting during which many members of the public asked the supervisors to reconsider consolidating the area planning commissions.

The county has commissions for Columbia, Jamestown and Southern Tuolumne County, which make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on amendments to the county General Plan and on zoning issues, as well as on land-use and development proposals in their areas. They also can approve permits on conditional use, design review, site review and development, though those decisions can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Under the plan approved 3-2 by the board, the remaining Tuolumne County Planning Commission will take on the areas previously covered by the other three.

One of the public speakers against the move was former Jamestown area Board of Supervisors representative Dick Pland, who said the issue came up other times during his tenure on the board. The same arguments are made every time, Pland said, as people seek to simplify the planning process.

But Pland challenged the board to keep the commissions in place. He called them examples of local control that members of county government demand in other situations.

“We give lip service to local control, and here’s a case where it’s as local as it gets,” Pland said.

“These are your neighbors and your friends making these decisions,” he later said, adding the volunteer citizen boards give the public “access to the mystery of zoning and land-use decisions.”

Arguments against the proposal, which were made by most of the dozen-plus members of the public who spoke, also included the fact that the commissions offer a less-formal forum for residents and property owners to comment on and discuss local projects.

For some, it’s also a geographical issue. Supervisor John Gray, who voted against eliminating the commissions along with Karl Rodefer, said his South County constituents need an area planning commission because Groveland and Big Oak Flat are isolated from the rest of the county.

“It’s much more transparent to have local control over a planning process than it is to have it the way it used to be,” Gray said.

The proposals came from a task force created to review the necessity of the county’s myriad commissions and committees.

Supervisor Evan Royce headed the committee. He said during Tuesday’s meeting that the plan will save staff time and remove steps for builders and property owners looking to complete projects

The issues brought up Tuesday were thoroughly discussed over months of meetings by the task force, he said.

Supervisors who voted to eliminate the three commissions, including Randy Hanvelt and Sherri Brennan, requested the changes include requirements that the remaining planning commission hold its meetings in the communities where major projects are on the agenda.

Representatives with the Tuolumne County Building Industry, Business Council and Chamber of Commerce also supported the proposal.

“The citizens will have good representation on the Tuolumne County Planning Commission” said Royce, who is also a general contractor.

Changes to the planning system also will include disbanding the Phoenix Lake, Muller subdivision, Twain Harte and Tuolumne City design review/planning advisory committees. Those committees comment on “design review” permits in their designated areas, which have additional zoning rules for properties. The plan will erase those rules for the two subdivisions altogether and shrink the county’s remaining design review areas.

The design review standards would then only be handled when county planners reviewed other permits for construction projects, and the design review permit would be eliminated altogether.

The five supervisors unanimously supported the design review changes, which they said would play a major role in streamlining the planning process. According to the Community Resources Agency many of the applications that came through the planning commissions in Columbia and Jamestown are related to design review issues.

In other news, the Board of Supervisors:

• Voted to require a deposit on property taxes and other fees ahead of a lot-line adjustment. The move, according to county Treasurer-Tax Collector Del Hodges, will protect property owners from hidden taxes that could be owed on a new property.

• Approved a change to the personnel contract between the county and deputy sheriffs to give the sheriff more discretion over the number, personnel and terms for special assignments like detective, Tuolumne Narcotics Team sergeant, boat patrol and others.

• Reinstated a special committee to review and propose changes to the Biological Resources Review Guide, a program that guides developers through all the local, state and federal environmental regulations that pertain to a local project.

• Recognized Rose Waters for 25 years of work in the county’s Human Services Department.