Pictured: Ventura City Hall.

by Kimberly Rivers
kimberly@vcreporter.com

On Dec. 6, the Ventura City Council will decide on whether or not to change how development projects weave their way through the sausage mill of planning committee hearings and appeals. 

Developers say the process is onerous and discourages economic investment in the city, while some members of the public say the proposed changes strip away public involvement and transparency, pointing to election campaign contributions from developers to city council members as a reason why so much development is happening in the city. 

Peter Gilli, community development director for Ventura, said it was “unfortunate” that community members are framing the proposed changes as attempts to hide the development review process. Indeed, a petition signed by nearly 100 people as of press deadline states that the proposed changes would “shred the checks and balances.”

Gilli countered that if the city council adopts the changes being suggested by staff, both the Design Review (DRC) and the Historic Preservation committees (HPC) would still be part of the review process and that any project with more than five units would still go before the DRC as well as the planning commission (PC), and that any project “that affects a historic resource” will still be reviewed by the HPC. Projects with “major variances of exceptions” will be reviewed by the PC. 

One change under consideration regards alterations to the exterior facades of buildings. Gilli said that currently, facade changes are “split between administrative action and DRC review, depending on location.” An administrative action is a simple staff review and decision. The proposed streamlining would make all facade changes an administrative action. It should be noted that all city design requirements would apply. 

Another change relates to use permits, which property owners must apply for in order to conduct certain activities on their land that are not intrinsically allowed. Examples of uses that require a permit include for-profit weddings and dog kennel businesses.

Prior to the emergency ordinance, use permit reviews “were split between staff hearings and PC depending on the type of use permit.” Gilli said the streamlining ordinance would push all use permit reviews to staff hearings, but emphasized that “these are still public hearings, with public notification, public comment and the ability to appeal.” 

Need to streamline? 

After the smoke of the Thomas Fire cleared and people who had lost homes put the pieces back together, Ventura became inundated with building permits, with some taking a very long time to be processed. 

In light of this, the city commissioned a report from an outside consultant to examine the process and recommend ways to improve it. That resulted in the Matrix Report, which was endorsed by the Ventura City Council in 2019. Based on findings in the report, staff was directed to move forward with making the recommended changes to the city’s permitting process. Then, when the pandemic hit, an emergency ordinance was adopted. In early 2021 the council, with several newly elected members, directed staff to move forward with developing a permanent streamlining ordinance. 

In a Nov. 3, 2021 staff report, the three key findings of the Matrix Report are summarized. Projects take too long to get through the permitting process because the process itself is “a complicated process that is difficult to describe,” along with “DRC/HPC acting subjectively or outside their role” and “too many [projects] go[ing] to DRC/HPC/PC hearings.” 

In response, staff is proposing that more projects go to administrative hearings, all of which are public hearings that require public notice and are subject to the appeal process. 

But some in the community are expressing concerns that the proposed changes will reduce public input and thwart the influence of various review committees. Nearly 100 people have signed a petition asking the city council to vote no on making the changes permanent and instead take more time to review the proposed changes, while asking the city to develop design guidelines.

The path of development

As is typical in many jurisdictions, there are generally two pathways that a project may take: discretionary or ministerial. 

Ministerial projects are generally smaller in scope, and must meet certain criteria, but generally have less review than discretionary projects. Typical examples of ministerial projects include putting in a backyard gazebo, interior building improvements, room additions, fences or even obtaining a marriage license. 

If a ministerial project meets the requirements of the municipal code and the required fees have been paid, the permit will be granted. Furthermore, the city has very little discretion on whether it can say yes or no; oversight is limited to the various requirements that are already laid out in the code. 

The ministerial phase still involves building, encroachment and grading permits, but in this phase these do not require public notification and hearings. Ventura issues thousands of ministerial permits every year. 

With discretionary projects, the city has discretion about whether or not to approve the project. The project, such as a residential home build or a multi-unit development, must still meet state and local code requirements, but various studies — traffic impact, environmental review, etc. —  are included in the review phase. Discretionary projects require public notifications and hearings and include an appeal process in which parties opposing decisions on the project can seek an alternative. 

According to a January 2021 report produced by Ventura City Manager Alex McIntyre and Gilli, about 100 discretionary projects are approved each year. Most are minor projects, but a few attract public interest. 

Both ministerial and discretionary projects require a sign-off from various agencies including public works, fire and Ventura Water, and the city attorney’s office weighs in when legal support is needed. 

“Most simply, the problem with this phase is the difficulty in getting through it. This is not to say that the process should be easy. But when describing past experiences with this phase, developers were pleading simply to be able to get through the process to a hearing, where a decision could be made,” stated the city’s 2021 staff report. 

The report cited “internal” factors that are “completely within the city’s control” that lead to the reported struggle developers have with the process.

As previously reported by the Ventura County Reporter, Gilli said (“State law puts city into a corner,” Kimberly Rivers, Apr. 28, 2021) that the current process for reviewing development proposals includes a web of various committees, which are restricted in what they can review and act on. This means a developer must present a project to several committees, none of which have the final thumbs up or down on the entire project, but rather only commenting on and approving a piece of a project. 

This can create an onerous appeal process, both for the project developer and for members of the public that object to the project. An appeal could be filed regarding one committee’s decision, only to have the project sail through another committee. 

What developers are asking for, and what Gilli said the city is working to achieve, is a process that ensures plenty of public input opportunities, a thorough review of the project, but also a clear approval and/or appeal process, which, as is the goal, would shorten the time a project is in review. 

The report continued, “Since the City’s future tax base relies on private investment in property, addressing these internal factors in the development review process has been a City Council priority.”

Summary of changes

Changes included in the streamlining focus on which entity reviews each project. 

First, the community development director will be given the authority to route a project to a “different decision maker than is ordinarily required.” This is on a case-by-case basis. According to the city, of 47 projects in the city’s review process since May 2020, only nine were routed to a different decision maker under authority granted by the emergency ordinance. 

Second, when a project requires multiple hearings in front of various committees, the community development director will “identify a single final action body,” essentially determining which committee will make the final decision. An appeal can still be filed and heard by the city council. 

And finally, public notification would be mandated rather than a “courtesy” and would require that a notice be mailed to all property owners within 300 feet of a project site. 

Nov. 3, Ventura City staff report on streamlining ordinance amendments: www.cityofventura.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/29615/PROJ-15322—Streamlining-PC-SR 

Petition opposing the proposed ordinance amendments: www.change.org/p/no-on-the-ventura-pso