The guiding planning document for the City of Goleta is the General Plan. Now, 12 years after incorporation, Goleta is in the process of creating its next most important document, the zoning code.
The zoning code is like a user manual for the General Plan, laying out the rules of how to make it work. So who are the owners of the General Plan and who are the users? The owners are the citizens of Goleta who, through many workshops early in the city’s life, put together their vision for the future of the city and how to maintain and enhance the values they cherish. These users include individuals seeking to develop anything from a simple residential remodel to a 465-unit housing development, a hotel, an office, or an industrial project. Users also include members of the community who monitor projects to ensure that they conform to the General Plan.
The zoning code is intended to lay out in clear, understandable language what is allowable in a particular zone or site and what steps and decision-making processes have to be gone through to allow it to happen. Critically important is where, in this process, the public gets to speak. As with a user manual, there must be a troubleshooting section where the public gets to express its views, and if necessary, appeal a decision.
Starting last week, the Goleta Planning Commission began hearings on the new zoning code, the first module being a review of the regulatory framework for land-use decisions. A consultant, Michael Dyett, has been responsible for this first draft. According to his report, “Goleta’s current zoning regulations do not clearly outline how to obtain a permit to do development.” A goal is “to make the permit review process more streamlined and to have the review and approvals without consistent reliance on public hearings.”
The proposal currently under consideration would put more decisions in the hands of a “zoning administrator,” a staff position, in the name of streamlining the approval process.
Some fear that this streamlining could be like a luge ride, very fast, with inadequate time for public notice and participation. The argument in favor of streamlining is that the final zoning code will have clear standards and performance criteria, based on General Plan policies, for building height, distance from the street, square footage, and so on so that review and approvals of many smaller projects such as simple remodels or additions can be processed by staff administratively without the necessity for public hearings.
More complex projects would still have public hearings before the zoning administrator, with notification of hearings posted on a project site, with mail or email notification to owners and residents within 500 feet. Would these hearings be at times accessible to the public — that is, in the evening rather than during the day? Most decisions would be open to appeal, but how are the results of the hearings to be made public? And at what point in the process should the public get to express its concerns? The development of the zoning code has just begun, and many meetings will take place before final decisions are made. Now is the time to make your voice heard.
Staff has expressed concern that community opposition to a project sometimes does not surface until it is near a final hearing before the Planning Commission or the City Council. The consultant has endorsed the idea of a preliminary conceptual review before staff, the zoning administrator, and the Planning Commission where appropriate. This would be advisory but would give a developer warning signals of where there might be trouble ahead and allow for modifications to maintain consistency with the General Plan before beginning the expensive review process.
As with any user manual, there has to be room for some adaptation and variability. The General Plan is not an inflexible document, and it allows for conditional-use permits and “good cause findings” at times to allow projects to fit unusual sites or to actually improve and enhance a proposal as a “community benefit.” But the definition of “good cause” is far from clear. It should be based on sound planning and environmental principles, not economic gain to the developer or city revenues.
Public noticing of Design Review Board, Planning Commission, City Council, and zoning administrator hearings will have clear guidelines in the final code. The consultant is also proposing that, on a voluntary basis and at the behest of an applicant, neighborhood meetings can be held to present a proposal and hear from the most affected residents.
Public participation in Goleta is an important value, well understood by the Planning Commission. I believe it is also recognized by the consultant, despite concern about his proposed increased role of the zoning administrator. But the zoning administrator’s authority must yet be defined and through a public process.
It is hard to get excited about writing a bureaucratic document like a zoning code. But participation now is critical to maintaining full participation in the future. Staff can do a lot to make permitting less frustrating and more understandable and dependable. But it will take all of us, working together, to keep the promise on which Goleta was founded — local control of the land-use decisions.
For more information and updates, go to the city website: goletazoning.com.
Margaret Connell was active in creating the City of Goleta and has served as mayor and city councilmember.