By Jim Shilander
San Clemente is trying to fight a reputation for being difficult to do business in.
For a number of years, businesses complained that the city was either not helpful, in terms of helping new businesses navigate the permitting process needed to jump through some of the many hoops required by the state and locally, or downright hostile.
As a city founded by a developer, with architectural review written into its founding documents, San Clemente has always toed the line between letting businesses do what they’d like to do and preserving the city’s fundamental look and character.
Michael Kaupp is a downtown business owner as well as a member of the city’s design review subcommittee. He has also served as president of the Downtown Business Association. In the past, he said, the business community has often perceived the city as not being business-friendly, at least in terms of the amount of time it took to get things rolling.
“I think there was a concern that processes took too long; that the city wasn’t friendly to businesses and other applicants,” Kaupp said. “There wasn’t an appreciation for their goals.”
After complaints relayed to the city by the San Clemente Chamber of Commerce prompted a review of city processes in 2010, city leaders attempted to provide more education on its processes to prospective applicants, and to be more responsive on the ground. While individual decisions of the city may still cause rancorous feelings for rejected parties or those whose efforts didn’t work out, the city’s desire is still to try and make things more understandable for prospective businesses.
Jim Holloway, the city’s Community Development Director, has been working to change the city’s reputation in the business community. Holloway said one of the most important things he’s tried to do was get city planning department officials out into the community, to try and understand the needs of businesses.
“It’s sort of like community oriented policing,” Holloway said, referring to programs where police walk the streets they patrol to get to know the concerns and worries of the people they protect. “I wanted to have planners walk the streets, meeting face-to-face with people. That way they become known to business people.” Holloway said his efforts haven’t been about streamlining the process for businesses as much as they were making the process better known to business people, so the intimidation factor was lessened.
“Some of the processes that people are intimidated by are simple, if you’ve done them a dozen times like we have in the office. But for a business owner, taking on even one more thing, aside from all the work they’re already doing, can be overwhelming. We try to encourage people to come in and help them. It’s really helped in that we become a friendly face. We even have people contact their staff member on something they’re not involved with, like a pothole.” Taking care of issues like that as they happen, he said, helped to build a good rapport between the city and business.
That experience has certainly been true of the downtown, Kaupp said, as he sees the city’s downtown planning representative at many functions and has seen firsthand the improvement in rapport. “It feels friendlier,” he noted. Getting a face out to businesspeople helped to provide a point person to voice concerns to and take care of minor issues.”
Kaupp said the efforts to let people understand the expectations of doing business in San Clemente have also extended to the DBA and the committees he sits on.
“From a businessperson’s perspective, everyone wants to do what they want to do,” Kaupp said. “But the city has some very clear and strong guidelines to abide by.”
On his committees, which often deal directly with business owners trying to set up shop in the community, there was an effort being made to better understand the perspective of the person on the other side.
“We’re trying to provide more information up front about what will be approvable,” Kaupp said. Having an applicant waste time and money creating something that couldn’t pass muster only served to create ill will.”
The boards have also been trying to literally put themselves in the position of applicants, essentially doing role-playing, in order to see what it was like to face the board. Working more with potential applicants before they come in, he said, has helped tremendously. “Friendlier translates to clearer,” Kaupp said.
The design review committee was also been speaking with past applicants in order to find out their experiences with the process. “That’s really helping, demystifying the review process.”
Kaupp added that the DBA had tried to provide information on the expectations within the downtown area for prospective business owners. “We’re trying to get the word out about what the opportunities are and what the constraints are in that area.”
And, according to Holloway, in some ways, part of the problem for applicants was just a matter of San Clemente’s location, even if location is what brings many residents and business people here in the first place.
“California is a very tough place to do business,” Holloway said, adding that the state has environmental regulations that go beyond what applicants face in other states. That number was added onto, he noted, by San Clemente’s coastal location, which added another layer of regulations to what businesses could and couldn’t do.
“This is also a very litigious state, compared to others,” Holloway said. “People have to go to some lengths in order to protect themselves from litigation.”
But on the other side, Holloway said, a number of state regulations also made it a place that could provide advantages to those looking to set up shop.
“Some of the things that make us tough also end up ultimately beneficial,” Holloway said. The state’s building codes also included language requiring more energy efficiency, he explained, allowing business owners to save over the long term. The codes also took into account seismic activity not present elsewhere.
Holloway also commented that the demands on development among the citizens of the city was higher in San Clemente than it might be elsewhere.
“We have a high quality of life here and people expect high quality development in this community,” he said. “What strikes me is that you have a much more active community that scrutinizes everything. In coastal communities with high quality of life, there’s more scrutiny from the public. People are protective.” During the hearing process on a proposal to add rail tracks in San Clemente, for example, Caltrans had held workshops in a number of coastal communities and usually had about a dozen participants. “There were 900 people in San Clemente,” Holloway explained. This was even true for individual businesses, he said, especially as it related to concerns over parking and signage.
Holloway said trying to be more open about the city’s processes has also helped to bring down the number of people just going ahead with projects that are in violation of the city’s codes, either willfully or unknowingly.
“When people ask for an exception, there’s a lot of scrutiny that comes in from the existing community. Things like that used to be pretty rampant, but there’s now much less of that. One thing that happens is contractors bid against each other for jobs, and the guy who loses out will still be interested because he wants to be sure he’s not undercut by someone going against the rules,” Holloway said. “Un-permitted work has also become a significant red flag in appraisals, making it difficult for owners who engage in it to refinance.”