Terry Lamphier: Rules? Which rules?
In our era of uncertainty, most of us believe in the importance of laws, regulations and rules, though we might not always understand them or agree with them.
A current local controversy involves the appropriateness of granting construction approval of several Dollar General stores which, the argument goes, follow the rules so the company has the right to build.
Stepping back a bit, who makes the rules and what are they for? Rules theoretically come into being because they reflect a community’s values, subject to our U.S. Constitution’s (and subsequent interpretations) aim of fair play.
Our local “constitutions” are our various General Plans, documents evolved to reflect, just as our Constitution does, what our vision is for our community. They start with goals and objectives, then codify zoning and other regulations along with presenting procedures for altering them. Recognizing special circumstances, one common tool used is the use of “findings” — a proposal fails the general plan but may have redeeming elements — planning staff findings — that are used to bypass the rules.
While a good starting point, many complications present themselves.
Too often, a community’s vision does not anticipate new challenges and can be unequipped to deal with them.
Laws change regularly to reflect new values but, General Plans are rarely updated, as the process is time consuming, expensive and needs to recognize state and federal laws as well as local community’s vision and who’s vision gets codified?
“Findings,” based on a General Plan’s less rigid goals and objectives, never seem to be used to deny a project that conforms to the rules but contradicts goals or our vision.
Most general plans are full of unintentionally conflicting goals and objectives, with clauses that can be found to support or oppose any given proposal. I know this from my copies of local general plans and from my past role as a planning commissioner who drew heat for pointing out contradictions and inconsistencies and getting staff to publicly admit that no clause had priority over others. By implying possible staff bias with General Plan interpretation I was labeled a troublemaker by the planning commission chair and, on her complaint to the City Council, subsequently fired.
With historically recent development projects, here’s how rules have been creatively interpreted with differing results. Some examples:
Grass Valley’s 2020 General Plan had a very aggressive housing development element, accommodating thousands of new homes which, if the community had not stepped up (or the economy intervened), would have been built by now.
The “Berg Heights” zoning related housing proposal failed Grass Valley’s general plan, but city planning staff presented overriding findings, arguing that among other things a park a half mile away on busy streets with no sidewalks would be a project amenity. Project denied.
The BriarPatch zoning change project had potential traffic impacts that planning staff used a creative work-around to minimize the significance of. Staff argued that the store would have “pass by” (existing) traffic stopping in to shop (no traffic increase) versus “destination” (new) traffic that would add to existing traffic loading and require developer mitigation. Project approved.
The DeMartini zoning change request added significant value to the owner’s property, yet the owner argued against a planning department proposal to set aside a very small and otherwise unusable edge of the property for a creek trail easement (a legally recognized mitigation for the project’s new traffic impacts). The owner threatened a suit for “government taking,” likely influencing the Council’s vote to approve without a trail requirement.
Regarding the Dollar General issue, the records show that rules are inconsistently interpreted or applied and influenced by politics and community desires. Further, existing regulations do restrict certain businesses, such as adult businesses, tattoo parlors, marijuana dispensaries, etc., because of real or perceived negative community and/or financial impacts.
When voting for our next city and county leaders, do we want “leaders” who vote for businesses that brand our community as low income, all to save 50 cents on a 12-pack of soda? Hypocritical efforts to appear non-discriminatory may cause real and substantial long-term harms to our tourism trade, existing businesses and quality of life.
This June, please vote for leadership dedicated to protecting our special community and who support our existing businesses. Supporting discount chain stores is too much like free market off-shoring of jobs “to save consumers money” — and how did that work out?
Terry Lamphier, a former Nevada County supervisor, lives in Grass Valley.
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