Search is on for difficult position of planning manager

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City officials believe that the new Environmental and Community Development Department, which incorporates the planning division, will ease the process overall.

By Rosanna Mah/Special to The Malibu Times

Finding a good planning manager is not a problem the City of Malibu faces. The burden lies in retaining one.

Six planning directors have left their positions in the last 12 years, citing reasons ranging from being reassigned to other departments to moving away from the public toward the private sector.

The latest to leave was Drew Purvis, who resigned in March to start up his own company in Malibu, DP Planning and Development Inc., of which he is CEO and president. After his departure and an examination of the city’s structure, the Planning Department was incorporated into the newly created Environmental and Community Development Department, headed by Director Victor Peterson. In the meantime, Edward Knight was hired as interim planning manager, whose responsibilities are similar to those of previous directors; and the search began for the city’s first planning manager.

“It can be a very tough job where you have to be very professional and exact,” Knight said, who feels that one of the first challenges posed to the planning manager includes dealing with a coastal community that is still in its youth stage.

To him, the planning manager’s job is fraught with difficulties related to current conflicts with the California Coastal Commission and controversies surrounding Malibu’s complex zoning codes. When zoning codes are unclear, everyone from homeowners, developers and architects are ultimately affected by the city’s lack of clarity on how to determine the use of their property rights.

“The city has an ongoing issue with what the LCP (Local Coastal Plan) is going to say, but once that is resolved between the Coastal Commission and the city, that will definitely help establish Malibu’s course,” Knight said. “I cannot predict how long this would take.”

Meanwhile, around 20 applications have been received for the planning manager position since April, a position which pays up to $95,000 a year depending on the candidate’s qualifications, according to Human Resources Director Julia James. As the city is now at the tail end of the interview process, she expects the city to appoint its seventh planning manager by the beginning of September.

“We want someone with a strong planning background, someone who is qualified and experienced in other cities. We’re just looking for someone with good experience who will fit into our organization,” James said.

This time around, the new planning manager may not have as difficult time as his or her predecessor.

“Right now, the city is undertaking some zone tech amendments, so that will help to make these zoning rules clearer and easier to understand,” Knight said.

Knight also said he has not applied for the planning manager position but will stay for as long as it takes the city to appoint a new person.

Models that work

From an outsider’s perspective, Steve Craig,, community development director for the city of Calabasas, cites the lack of clarity of the city’s planning design and conflict of interests between environmental protection standards and the individual or group developers’ desires as two reasons, which could possibly explain Malibu’s high turnover rate of planning directors.

“I think, in fairness, Malibu has set a very high standard of environmental protection, and that standard seriously conflicts with the ability of people to construct homes that are expensive or as large as they would like,” Craig said. “In Malibu, there is a different temperament, a greater interest in displaying the houses in size and stature.”

According to Craig, Calabasas shares many of the same kinds of issues with Malibu, dealing with individuals who want to build large homes on relatively small plots of land or where developers want highly visible buildings along the coastal quarters.

But he added that, although Calabasas has maintained a strong commitment to environmental resources, Malibu has wavered on this commitment because people are frequently building on archeological sites, which puts a lot of pressure on highly valuable natural resources.

“If a city council is not unified on how they want the city to be designed or their environment protected, such a situation will create significant stress for the planning director,” he added.

On the other hand, Malibu Planning Commissioner Richard Carrigan argued that the Planning Commission has not wavered on environmental protection standards and the General Plan principles. He said that the work of a planning manager in a city such as Malibu is extremely demanding and complex due to the interpretive nature of the zoning code.

“In addition to running the department, he has to spend an enormous amount of time trying to understand the ambiguous zoning code. There are many issues that just are not clear,” Carrigan said.

Carrigan added that the Planning Commission is working on clarifying the ambiguities of the zoning code, such as deleting obsolete terms like the “Interim Zoning Code (IZO).”

City Manager Katie Lichtig, who hired the previous planning director, remained vague about explaining why Malibu experiences a high turnover rate of planning directors. She said that she is presently not involved in the hiring process and that efforts to develop the Environmental and Community Development Department will go far in addressing issues concerning the city’s planning division.

This new department, which houses the permit services, planning and building and safety divisions under one roof and provides new services such as online permits and tracking systems is modeled after the successes of other cities such as Calabasas, Santa Monica, West Hollywood and Laguna Beach.

“I don’t want to repeat the past, that’s why I got the new model,” Lichtig said. “I have every expectation that this model is the right model for the city of Malibu. We have high participation in resident population and complex issues, and this model is going to help us address all these issues that are facing plan use and planning matters.”

Calabasas City Manager Donald Duckworth agreed that this unifying approach has been effective the last two years in Calabasas, as it improved communication between planning-related departments and resolved several conflicts in the city’s planning vision.

In nearby Santa Monica, this city venture has also proven to be a success since its implementation in the 1980s, according to McCarthy.

“Obviously we feel this combined approach is better: a combined department can provide a continuity and contact from the beginning to the end of the project,” McCarthy said. “I would say that in a city that has complex code requirements, a unified structure can provide for better recognition where zoning and building and safety issues are involved.”