The recent announcement that Head Commissioner Tim Hughes resigned tolls a warning bell for a Planning Commission (PC) that already has lost its way. Indeed, at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem McCullough cried out “What’s happening with the Planning Council?” With the opportunity of appointing a replacement, the future of the PC is at stake.
According to the dictionary, “planning” means “To formulate a scheme or program for the accomplishment, enactment, or attainment of an objective”. According to the City’s website, the PC “is a decision-making body tasked with reviewing matters related to planning and development in the City.”
Ironically, the newly constituted PC seems to be unable to plan – they merely react. When was the last time you saw the results of any planning by the PC? Witness the marathon session at a recent meeting where a developer sought to get the PC to endorse a change in the General Plan, rezoning a viable commercial area in the Portola Auto Center to build 70+ more homes. The idea of changing the General Plan didn’t come from the results of any planning by the City. Quite the opposite! It came from the desire of developers to make money, for which the developers had extensive plans. Tasked with the responsibility to review the developer’s plans, how did the PC respond?
“Build more homes?”
Do we really need more homes? The Council already approved building more than 4,000 new homes, none of which have hit the market yet. No one has any idea what these new homes and the 32,000 additional daily vehicle trips will do to a city already struggling with traffic problems, and where access to public resources such as libraries and post offices is already problematic. Why on earth would we be approving even more homes when we don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of what we’ve already approved? What kind of planning is that?
And what will these new homes do to the existing home values for the other homes in the city? Shouldn’t a “planning” commission be looking at that?
“Build more homes there?”
According to one of the speakers who resides nearby the proposed project, almost everyone is opposed to the project. Moreover it makes no sense to build homes in an area zoned for commercial purposes, and it is not only going to produce homes that are incompatible with our City (e.g., no driveways), it may provoke one of the two remaining businesses (a Mercedes Benz dealer) to move. Anyone planning for that?
Just a few weeks ago, when another developer also requested building homes in this area, more than a dozen residents from the City appeared and all but one opposed the project. Aren’t the concerns of our citizens part of the “planning” process?
“Kick out the existing business?”
It so happens that this new development is not going to be built on vacant land. The land is occupied by a thriving auto repair business that employs dozens of Lake Forest residents, many of whom use the local restaurants right across the street. Ironically, it turns out this very business handles City vehicles. It’s one of the few times that our City spends its money in our City.
Shouldn’t part of the planning process involve measuring the current economic benefit from the local business, and the impact of losing that business? Do we take profits from local businesses and jobs from our own residents to give profits to companies that reside elsewhere?
“What’s the best use of this land?”
When the city staff reviewed the material submitted by the developer, they discovered that the studies paid for by the developer never addressed the issue of the commercial viability of the area. True, the area has been in trouble, as have many areas of the City. But the question is, with the new 4,000+ homes, most of which are within a mile of this area, and with the improving economy, what is the future potential of this area? Good question. Actually, a vital question. So the staff asked for a study of this specific issue. Isn’t this what a “Planning” Commission should do? But the developers refused to comply, and took their case to the council, where the developers had already spent nearly $100,000 in campaign contributions, helping elect 3 of the 5 members and supporting a 4th. Needless to say, with not a mention of the big bucks they received, the Council backed the developers, giving Lake Forest yet another sad day in our political annals.
But the fact that members of our Council misbehave doesn’t mean that the PC has to roll over. After all, they are a PLANNING Commission and if they feel that they need a study in order to do better PLANNING, they can require it even if the Council has denied the staff’s request. But that would take courage and foresight, both of which were sadly missing, except in the comments of Commissioner Jerry Verplancke.
The new guys in town did their usual “we love it” act. Apparently, Commissioners Brower and Hamilton never met a developer’s project they didn’t like. Brower even called it “fantastic”. And the truth is, the project per se had some good features, but the real questions are (a) whether or not we need any more homes and (b) whether or not this is the right place for them. Before we approve any such project, those questions should be answered, and they can be answered by doing the appropriate studies. Yet the PC went ahead, without these studies, and approved the project, by a vote of 3 to 1 (Thank you Commissioner Verplancke for doing the right thing).
But don’t despair. While the commissioners didn’t think it was important enough to answer these critical questions, they did take the time to inquire about such major points as whether or not citrus trees were the best type of tree? whether or not a wall height of 18 inches or 24 inches would make a dramatic difference in street scaping? whether or not 2 garbage cans instead of 3 was a mitigating circumstance in closing down 13 parking spots during trash day? Such in-depth investigation makes an ordinary citizen proud.
Tomorrow, let’s discuss the future of the PC now that Chairperson Tim Hughes is leaving us for Oregon. But before we leave, let’s give out a big salute to Tim Hughes for all his years of hard work on behalf of the City and wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors.