SodaCanyonRoad | Streamlining Public Input
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Streamlining Public Input


George Caloyannidis | Mar 7, 2018 on: Growth Issues


NVR 3/15/18: Napa County Planning Commission rejects limiting public speakers to 2 minutes

[Letter to Supervisors regarding Dec 20th 2017 Planning Commission referral of 2018 PC Bylaws governing applicant and protestant speaking times at public hearings (Agenda item 8B here and Register articles here and here)]

Dear Supervisors,

I am dismayed at the proposed "streamlining" process the Planning Commission has put in front of you for your approval.

The basic question which needs to be answered before any changes to the process are made is what is the purpose of the process in the first place. it seems to me that the primary purpose of the process is to seek ways to make the outcome of decisions better. No one has yet to make the case that a faster process is one which delivers a better outcome.

Limiting the time applicants and their consultants have to present a complex application to 15 minutes is not serious when one considers that entire EIRs involving traffic, safety, impacts on resources etc. need to be presented. One can make the argument that all that information - often consisting of over 1,000 pages - are on file for any citizen to inform themselves but you must concede this to be unrealistic. At least it is available to the Commissioners whose jobs it is to do just that. But the public doesn't stand a realistic chance under the current system.

I am a fairly well educated person. Whenever I designed a plan after hours of considering every angle I can think of, I used to think that there was nothing to be added. Until that is, I presented it to public scrutiny. I learned that there is nothing more valuable than the wisdom of the crowd.

The entire premise of the "streamlining" proposal before you is that citizen input is of no value and needs to be curtailed. As a matter of fact one cannot avoid feeling the Commissioners' utter disdain for it and that were it not for the law, they would prefer to eliminate it altogether. Having sat through appeals before you, I must say that you yourselves are not immune from this charge.

I venture to say that except for applicants whose projects are approved, the public who cares to participate with a lot of sacrifice in the process is not satisfied with the results most of the time feeling that it was not "heard". This means that there are fundamental improvement which need to be instituted beginning with ways to encourage wider public participation! However, when the public perceives that its input is ineffective as it has been, you are disinviting it rather than inviting it.

Complex staff reports ought to be available to the public for at least 10 working days prior to a hearing if the P.C. were really interested in valuable public input. Applicants make a presentation, the Commission asks questions, the applicant replies. The public speaks, the applicant addresses its points but the public has no way of rebutting the applicant's explanations. Nor does the public have the opportunity to address points the Commissioners make among themselves. The process itself is wanting in basic structure not just in terms of expediency.

If you really aspire to a system which delivers a better product, you need to assemble a study group which involves business interests as well as the public. Expediting, "streamlining" the process should be way down the line of considerations.


Comments
Bill Hocker - Jan 24, 2018 7:08PM

The pushback against projects coming before county boards is the natural result of an industry beginning to degrade the quality of county life that residents treasure in its search for more profits to be made by more development. But the proposal to formalize the parameters of public feedback at hearings seems little more than a codification of the existing pattern. The Chairs of the planning commission and the board this past year have been quite ready to hammer opponents on the 3 minute rule, not allowing one speaker additional time to speak on behalf another, and not allowing community rebuttal to applicant's statements. Applicants are kindly limited to 15 minute presentations (after some jovial bonding between industry reps and commissioners).

The interesting part is that a codification to the bylaws is deemed necessary now. Perhaps it is an attempt to cut a cause for litigation of the current bylaws. It definitely reflects the hardened anti-resident attitude that has taken place in county government (and the wine industry) since APAC and the election of a developer-majority board.

Allowing community input has always been an act of due diligence on the part of government, a legal necessity, with little intent to change minds. Rarely is there a clear instance of a commissioner making up his/her mind based on community input at the hearing. (Although Comm. Pope did seem to do so at the first Yountville Hill hearing only to be corrected durning a comfort break and eventually booted out of his position for his lapse in judgment.) Continuances do result from community input and it is clear that the industry and some commissioners see this as gumming up the development pipeline.

It is optimistic to think that community opposition in 3 (or 2) minute speeches at a public hearing will change the outcome of decisions months and many thousands of dollars in the making. The real problem is that the County restricts community participation in the process until the last few days before the approval is to be made. Residents do need to approach the planning department and individual commissioners at private meetings earlier in the process to make their concerns known and their mitigations accepted. And they need knowledgeable advocates for their positions to help with an unfamiliar process. That means that the real changes that need to be made in planning Commission Bylaws involve creating a process that involves impacted citizens throughout the design process and gives them real tools to counter the self-interested conclusions of paid consultants who are always able to massage the numbers to prove that a project will have less-than-significant impacts on residents, their community and the county at large. Unfortunately no one is talking about that kind of bylaw reform.

Daniel Mufson - Jan 23, 2018 6:08PM

I have confirmed with the COBís office that one or more supervisors has already requested that this item be pulled from consent for discussion so you do not need to submit a request. Also, the rules have not been approved or adopted by the Commission yet. They recommended adoption of the revisions but the Board must approve the bylaws and the Board may wish to make changes or provide further direction.