May 16, 2013
Tiobe Barron, OVN corrrespondent
A request for a variance to allow a rock wall on North Signal Street help prompt a workshop between the Ojai City Council and the Ojai Planning Commission during which the two groups reconsidered a number of city policies and priorities.
The variance was denied by the Planning Commission, but approved last month when the applicants appealed to the City Council.
“I think Commissioner (Paul) Crabtree brought up the question at the last meeting, where we had a Planning Commission decision that I think was four to one against a variance, and then it came to Council, who voted five to one in favor of the variance,” summarized Commissioner John Mirk during the Tuesday night workshop. “He was kind of concerned that we were getting out of step between the Planning Commission and the Council.”
“There was a (state-wide) presentation we were in that addressed variances, and it basically said, bottom line, that it is rare to give out variances,” offered Commissioner Kathleen Nolan.
Nolan continued that there is typically a stringent list of criteria qualifying a property for a variance — for example, when a stream runs through the property and creates a changing topography. This, she theorized, prevented just about anyone who wanted one from obtaining it.
“What you guys (Planning Commission) did is exactly correct,” stated Mayor Paul Blatz. “We have a little bit of a different calling in that the buck kind of stops with us and we are accountable to the electorate … So we have a little bit more flexibility in the way that we interpret the findings we have to make.”
For Commissioner Troy Becker, the discrepancies between the Council and Planning Commission decisions allowed the property owner to get away with serious transgressions.
“As planning commissioners and council members, we often have to swallow our pride a lot. And I think that’s just something we have to do. We’ve all done it. And I can swallow my pride on the wall. It’s a beautiful wall; I think it looks great. It matches the neighborhood. I really don’t have issues with the wall,” said Becker. “But one of the things that I had articulated to the applicant that I had a problem with is I had a discussion via email with Rob (Clark) when I was in Germany which was: Did the wall require a permit? And the answer was ‘yes.’ Was it constructed by a licensed contractor? And the answer was ‘no.’ So, my suggestion was that we need to put that on the variance application. If you violated the law, we shouldn’t even be looking at a variance. And by the way, it is the law. I went to Sacramento and looked at the big book and it is the law. It looks pretty dumb of us to be approving work that is completed by a non-licensed contractor.”
Councilwoman Carol Smith echoed Becker’s sentiments.
“Why in the world would you not hire a licensed contractor for a job that’s going to cost $25,000? How does a homeowner even think about doing that? Do we need to include some education to our public about the dangers that a homeowner faces when they hire somebody without a license?” asked Smith. “Ignorance is no excuse. Or trying to bifurcate the process is no excuse … How dumb can you be?”
Councilwoman Betsy Clapp was disturbed by another aspect of the variance appeal case for the wall.
“I think we need to consider that they had a stop-work order and continued,” said Clapp. “There is something really uncomfortable to me when people proceed with impunity. It is distasteful that they came to us and they got away with it. I can see where Planning Commission is saying, ‘Come on, you guys!’”
Clapp also inquired as to what the Development Department’s procedure is, when someone comes into the office requesting a variance.
“I think I’m pretty up-front with applicants that it is a difficult process and that there are special findings that need to be made, and that it is expensive and the outcome is uncertain,” answered Community Development Director Rob Mullane. “And that is as best as I can do without going beyond my authority.”
In regards to reconsidering the Planning Department fee schedule and its policy toward right-of-way designations, as well as priorities for the Community Development Department, Commissioners determined it would be most efficient to decide specifics on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis.
“Council is getting into the budget cycle to review priorities for the department, as well as other departments in the city,” said Mullane. “(At) the last Planning Commission meeting we talked in some detail about what the priorities for the department might be, and I set forth a laundry list of a few of the items that have been before staff for the last couple years. The Commission came up with an overarching objective or initiative that they thought would really address a lot of the issues all at once.”
“We keep seeing things that come through Planning that quite frankly kind of waste our time and aren’t Planning issues. They cost staff time, they cost city time and aren’t really generating revenue for the city,” elaborated Becker. “In my opinion, it all gets back to — we have to get back into correcting our codes and making them readable and understandable … There’s a little bit of distrust that happens at the Planning desk. It’s a kind of like being in a courtroom, I suppose. You can always find an argument to support your case. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win. So the idea was to work off of something we’ve been talking about, a real planning thing, and that is to look at our community as segmented by certain neighborhoods. That’s already been accomplished, through our Master Tree Plan, Community Forest Management Plan.”
Clapp suggested it might be prudent to hire outside help to consolidate existing data and criteria in delineating distinct neighborhoods of Ojai, and directed staff to consider this alongside the upcoming budget discussions.
Visit www.ci.ojai.ca.us to view the meeting in full.