Escondido, CA

City moves to make things easier for developers

The city council last week continued down the path of making the city more business and developer friendly, a strategy that it calls “Working together to get to yes!” This strategy was adopted during several sessions in 2015-2016.

The Escondido City Council Wednesday voted unanimously to accept the staff’s recommendation and the unanimous recommendation of the Planning Commission to amend eight articles to the Escondido Zoning Code (EZC) to restructure the planning development review process and streamline other development review processes.

Bill Martin, community development director walked the council through what is the second phase of development review. Phase 1 occurred in October when the City Council adopted a code amendment that reclassified the review authority for several discretionary requests with established development standards—from the Planning Commission to the Director of Community Development or designated staff.

The amendment adopted would, said Martin, create a more efficient and streamlined review process for Planned Developments, Minor Conditional Use Permits (CUPs), variances and modifications to previously approved projects.

The amendment came after staff and council members had heard for many months from development customers that the existing development review process was outdated, “With decision-making made at the top tier when much could be done at the lower level,” said Martin.

Staff had been directed to revamp and clean up policies, practices, eliminated outdated and burdensome processes.  The amendment the council adopted last week was part of that mandate.

Many decisions under the new process take review authority from the planning commission and give it to the director of community development and staff. The amendment eliminated the Preliminary Development Plan component while expanding the role of a newly created official, designated as the “zoning administrator.”

This person would not require hiring anyone new since, according to Martin, he or a member of his staff would do that job as needed.   “I never heard of a zoning administrator before,” remarked council member Ed Gallo.

The changes would change a three-step process to a two-step process. “One reason we feel we can do that is because we already do a no fee pre-application meeting with staff, which provides the applicant with immediate feedback on project concept, making the ‘preliminary Plan’ component redundant,” said Martin. “If we eliminate it we can save the applicant money.”

Minor modifications of a master plan would no longer require council level but could be made by the planning commission, while minor modifications of a precise plan could be accomplished by the zoning administrator without a hearing.

The amendment resulted in a slimmer development code with 10 sections eliminated, and sections combined with other sections while being updated.

“We estimate this could save two to four weeks for some projects,” said Martin.

Several items that had been under the Planning Commission, including CUPs, questions of additional pets, business hours, and gas and alcohol permits and other variances, would be shifted from the commission to Zoning Administrator.  A permit to sell alcohol would still go before the Police Department for review.

The Planning Commission reviewed the proposed changes at its February 14 and 28 meeting and unanimously approved of them.

Martin noted that any of these processes can still be appealed to the Planning Commission and, ultimately, to the City Council.

Councilman Ed Gallo commented, “I’m just happy that we are doing this stuff to cut the processing and get projects done sooner. I have a special interest in that. The sooner projects get off the ground, the sooner the city will collect taxes and all of these things help pay the salaries. The longer you delay somebody the longer it will take to make out the pay check.”

There was some discussion over whether there should be a 300 or 500-foot minimum for neighbors to be informed about a project. Assistant Mayor John Masson and Councilman Mike Morasco wanted 300 feet, the minimum required by the state of California, however Mayor Sam Abed and Gallo wanted 500, while councilwoman Olga Diaz said she would have preferred an even higher number. She said that neighbors not knowing about projects near their homes was one reason why the council chamber has gotten filled with angry residents so many times.

Mayor Sam Abed hailed the changes as “streamlining that we have talked about for many years. “I’m glad we have done it. I appreciate the clarity on this.” Abed assured the public that, “We are not giving up due diligence.  We do have safeguards. We always have the planning commission to appeal and the city council. But we have given responsibility down, and state requirements are already very strict. It’s part of our business-friendly goal for the city.”

The board voted for the staff recommendations, with some minor adjustments, 5-0.

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