Every Step of the ‘Process’

Almost every article written about planning in Montecito uses the word “process” to describe what people have to do in order to comply with existing residential planning law. I’ve discovered through talking with dozens of people over the last several months that there are quite a few different ideas about what the “process” actually is.

As an example of the confusion that exists, read what was described in a Montecito Journal article several months ago: “…every organization in the current matrix – MA, MBAR, MPC, P&D…”

I need to correct this misconception right away: while members of the Montecito Association may comment on land use issues they view as important, the organization has no formal relationship to the planning “process” in Montecito. It is not part of the legal “matrix” and is not enfranchised by County government to review anyone’s plans.

So in the interest of facts and clarity, I called John Baker, the director of County Planning and Development, and asked him exactly what the process is. In return, he sent me a flow chart for typical single-family residential applications: Here’s what it says:

1. Submit an application to the planning department.

2. If the land is a vacant lot, then the permit process is put on hold until the applicant has received the required number of “Montecito Points” (more on this in a future column). If there are existing improvements, then skip the Montecito Points Allocation Step.

3. An intake appointment is scheduled with County staff.

4. A planner is assigned.

5. The applicant mails notices within 15 days of application submittal.

6. The application is reviewed by planning staff. This may include a site visit, an evaluation of policy consistencies and whether other departmental review is required, such as the Montecito Fire Department.

7. The applicant appears before the Montecito Board of Architectural Review (MBAR). This must be done within six months of the Montecito Points Allocation. The MBAR process involves a conceptual hearing, a preliminary approval hearing, and a final approval hearing. There is some chance that the preliminary and final stages are combined, but prior to MBAR prelim/final approval, the planner prepares a “planner memo” indicating that the project complies with applicable policies and ordinances. Preliminary and final MBAR approvals can be appealed. If the MBAR approves the project, then, well, you get the idea.

8. A permit is approved. The MBAR decision (approval or denial) may be appealed to the Montecito Planning Commission (MPC) and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors. The land use permit may be separately appealed as well.

9. After permit approval, there is a 10-day appeal period during which the approval may be appealed by any “aggrieved person.” When the appeal period is over (and assuming no appeals have been filed), the permit will be issued after all prior to issuance conditions have been met (e.g., notice to property owner, payment of fees. etc.).

This process is complex, arduous, daunting and serves many masters. Just reviewing this description makes me wonder about several things:

1. While the process is meant to serve the Montecito Community, judging by some recent local complaints, there is mounting skepticism in some circles about its effectiveness in protecting the Montecito Community Plan.

2. On the other hand, there are many who feel it is entirely unwieldy and subject to so much subject interpretation by so many different people that it is inherently unfair. It seems as though the former group, those in favor of a stricter application of the Montecito Community Plan, need more local control to enforce their goals. The irony is that the latter group, those who want the process to be more democratic and directly responsive to the majority wishes of the Montecito Community, would also benefit from more local control!

It is ironic that the Montecito Association and its members and supporters on the one hand, and Voices of Montecito on the other, share that one major goal: local control of and responsibility for planning. It is no surprise, then, that both groups have been talking more frequently about common ground, areas of shared concern. Voices has said from the beginning that democracy is about consensus, majority rule. And we are pleased to say that the planning landscape looks better to us now than it has.