Land-use experts outlines steps to improve city planning wait times

In an Oct. 6 presentation, local land use expert Don Schmitz lists a dozen ways the city planning process could improve current wait times that average 2.3 years for a single-family home in Malibu. (That doesn’t even count the time spent on design, application prep, Coastal Commission, and appeals, which bring the average total time up to 4.3 years). 

Whereas Malibu takes an average of 28.6 months to approve an application, according to Schmitz, other coastal cities do it in a small fraction of that time: Santa Cruz does it in 3.4 months, Capitola in 2.5 months, and Newport Beach in three to four months. The California average is 2.3 to 3.4 months. 

“The statistics show that our planning system is not working to a degree that’s literally unprecedented in the state of California,” Schmitz pointed out. He maintains the Malibu system is broken and has been for well over 20 years, saying it needs real reform and “proper procedural guidelines.” 

“Every Planning Director Malibu ever had has been committed to reforming the department, and yet it’s never happened,” Schmitz said. “It’s not going to happen unless the whole community gets behind it … We’re looking to create momentum so there can be positive reforms for improvement, working with decision-makers.”

He gave the example of one resident waiting five years to get a septic system approved for a multi-unit building, because his project kept getting kicked down the road to the next Planning Commission meeting. In another instance, a family waited so many years to get approval for a home, they finally canceled the project — their kids had literally grown up while waiting for the building permit.

Here’s Schmitz’s list of issues and what needs to be done to reform Malibu’s Planning Department — and he does not blame current employees — it’s about making the system more efficient:

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  • Hire a “hearing officer” to review lower-level projects like septic systems or projects without variances.
  • Hold more than two Planning Commission meetings a month.
  • Establish a higher standard for the Planning Commission to pull items off the Consent Calendar, which in recent years, compromised anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of all items. Taking an item off the Consent Calendar requires a full-blown staff report and delays the project by three to four months. 
  • Abide by the “Permit Streamlining Act,” which is the law for every city in California except Malibu. Schmitz explained that City Council has the power to establish timelines for the Planning Department approval process that match the law — 30 days to review an application for feasibility and 180 days to get it to a hearing. Schmitz argues that the way the law is written requires Malibu to conform to the first part of this — a feasibility review within 30 days — but the city tells him it doesn’t.
  • Stop pulling projects from the Planning Commission agenda — it usually takes four to seven months to get a project back on the agenda.
  • Have a system for tracking and transferring projects within the Planning Department. 
  • Stop changing the rules without public notice. The Planning Department added three new rules just in the last three weeks without prior notice: a remodel now has to involve less than 5 percent of the house for over-the-counter approval instead of 10 percent; landscaping projects involving less than 2,500 square feet now require an “administrative plan review”; and swimming pools now have to be counted as part of the impermeable lot coverage calculation.
  • When every house on a street like Malibu Road needs a variance because of the same “manufactured slope” issue, then it’s not truly a variance — it’s the norm. That needs to change.
  • Have applications reviewed by the Planning Department first. The Malibu process is backwards and time consuming; it is the only town in the state where all involved city departments weigh in on an application before the Planning Department does. “Everywhere else, the Planning Department looks at it first and deems it complete or not within 30 days,” Schmitz described. 
  • The city needs to provide its notice of “onsite plan review” to residents within 500 feet of a project right away rather than waiting for years. “It’s beyond dysfunctional to let these nuclear bombs get dropped at the last minute,” Schmitz said. “Determine primary view at the very beginning — the inception of the process — not at the end after the applicants have already spent six figures.”
  • “The no/slow-growth people need to understand that Planning is not a means of procrastination (to prevent houses from being built). Planning is not pro-or anti-development. Our planning rules are designed to be consistent with our Mission Statement. It’s inappropriate to take years and years out of peoples’ lives.”
  • “We do need more planners, but that’s not the sole fix for our problems.”

City Manager Steve McClary, in a public letter to Schmitz on Oct. 5, outlined his plan for improving the Planning Department. First, he points out that several city departments are involved in the permitting and development process, not just planning. He said the city recently requested proposals from qualified consulting companies to provide assessments of “all aspects of the city’s processes,” including organizational structure, culture, resources, technology needs, and documentation. The final report, expected to come out late 2022 or early 2023, will be made public.

In addition, the city is purchasing new software for land management; and departments now have bi-weekly meetings to improve coordination issues.

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