Tim Hughes, a member of the Lake Forest Planning Commission, sent Lake Forest Patch the following letter to the editor:
The Lake Forest City Council opened its scheduled meeting on April 17, 2012 as it usually does: with the presentation of the meeting agenda. One such item to be addressed at this particular meeting was the appeal of a City of Lake Forest Planning Commission action to deny special concessions to BMW Management for their Sizzler Restaurant on El Toro Road. Acting within the bounds of its authority, the City Council took action on the matter, and , thereby granting BMW Management special concessions not enjoyed by other businesses in the area.
In order to better comprehend the implications of the City Council’s action, it is helpful to understand the roles of the Planning Commission and the City Council in the approval and appeal processes.
It is the Planning Commission’s responsibility to make the determination as to whether an application does or does not comply with previously established City of Lake Forest codes, regulations, and guidelines. The Planning Commission is charged with the duty of maintaining the City’s integrity and character by following such policies that were put into place to ensure Lake Forest remains the kind of community we all enjoy living, working, and/or owning a business in.
For clarification, codes and regulations are objective standards established through an extensive multifaceted analytical processes involving input from Lake Forest residents, Lake Forest’s business community and City staff. The process also includes thoughtful comparative analysis of adjacent community code and regulations. All of this material is then deliberated by the Planning Commission and finally approved by the City Council. Guidelines are also established through an action by the City Council. Established Guidelines, however, can be viewed less absolute and more subjective. With substantiated appropriate justification the Planning Commission and or City Council may grant deviations. The granting of deviations is handled as through the request for a Variance.
Guidelines are typically established as a result of exhaustive studies and deliberation by multiple City departments and with the input of residents and business owners within the City. Community input is a key element in the process of establishing Guidelines, as they will embody the intent and desires of the community with respect to land uses and land use areas. As a result, once put into place, guidelines represent the community’s long-term vision for specific areas and features within the City. With a clear understanding, these guiding principles represent the desires of the residents of our community. As such, deviations from such principles must be considered from the perspective of the residents and not merely from that of special interests.
Under the Appeal process the City Council is entrusted with the authority and privilege of reviewing Planning Commission actions for compliance with City regulations and guidelines. The Appeal process exists to enable an applicant the opportunity to have a Planning Commission action reviewed by a distinctively separate, antonymous body. This process allows an independent panel of community members, in this particular case the Lake Forest City Council, to evaluate salient facts related to the item in question. Facts presented to the reviewing body in an appeal include all information provided to the Planning Commission at the time of the Commission’s original determination, documentation representing important facts of the Planning Commission’s decision process, and any additional information the applicant may choose to present to the City Council.
The applicant is typically the initiator of the Appeal process. It may also be initiated, however, by any member of the community acting as an advocate for the applicant. The appealing party must pay a filing fee to start an appeal, with exception to situations in which City takes action to file the appeal.
In the case of the Sizzler restaurant, three appeals were filed. BMW Management filed one and two City Council Members, specifically Scott Voigts and Marcia Rudolph, filed appeals. As Council Members, both also are members of the reviewing body. It is clearly within their rights as Lake Forest citizens to file an appeal. However, their actions in filing such appeals, at the very least, appears to be a conflict with their fiduciary responsibility to the community when, as members of the reviewing body, the advocating party is also voting on the item being appealed. This clearly represents a predetermination rather than an open unbiased mind.
Both Council Members Scott Voigts and Marcia Rudolph claim to have no contact with members of BMW Management after the Planning Commission’s denial of approval for the special concessions to the Sizzler Restaurant. One may ask why a City Council member would file the appeal on behalf of an applicant, particularly in light of the fact the applicant is familiar with the appeal process. This action alone leaves room for the perception that the appeal was not without outside influences. It also leaves room to ask many questions not the least of which are 1) Was this in response to political consideration 2) Was this a response to personal relationships 3) Was this driven by personal convictions rather than the best interest of the residents? All of which are arbitrary an inappropriate. Maybe none of these were factors or considerations. The problem is the residents don’t know for sure. Therein lays the problem with arbitrary actions in government.
Marcia Rudolph stated on record that she had not reviewed information provided to her by City staff pertaining to the Planning Commission’s action. Scott Voigts claims his vote was based upon his “libertarian views of the relationship between business and government.” One can infer that on one hand, the City has a Council Member casting a vote on an item that has not had full review, and the other is a Council Member using their position to override established City codes, regulations and guidelines for the advancement of personal political beliefs.
A reasonable person is left to question how any person advocating special concessions on an appeal may also site as a voting member of the appellate panel. The fact that their actions leave any room for the perception of a conflict of interest should be more than enough reason for those members to recuse themselves from voting.
Lake Forest’s regulations and guidelines have been carefully and thoughtfully crafted to give all members of the City, residents and businesses alike, balanced and equal standards for performance. The City’s success in this area is clearly demonstrated through complements offered by almost all permit applicants, with the exception of BMW Management and Home Depot. The City of Lake Forest is known within the business community for being one of the easiest, and most business friendly city in the county when it comes to processing permits. Permit applicants routinely attribute this to the City staff, and clearly delineated regulations and guidelines. Under the present set of regulations and guidelines businesses know what is expected of them, making it easier, less time consuming, and less expensive for them to prepare and process an application. This makes Lake Forest more attractive for businesses. Dismantling or undermining these guidelines will effectively make the permit process more complicated and arbitrary. Big spending special interests will get big special deals and the small business will once again get squeezed out. Ultimately, actions similar to the one taken by three members of the City Council will make Lake Forest less attractive to business just as it was when under the control and influences of Orange County’s arbitrary decision making process.
Diminishing the value of established regulations and guidelines will open up the process to political lobbying and outside interests, thereby diluting the control Lake Forest residents have over their own city. Gaining and maintaining control of the city was the primary reason Lake Forest residents chose to become a city twenty plus years ago. Clearly, it is in the best interest of the residents of Lake Forest to keep Sacramento-style politics out of Lake Forest government.