The San Clemente Planning Commission took some more incremental steps toward fulfilling the City Council’s desire to streamline the permitting process for local construction at its meeting last week.
Continuing the public hearing on the subject from a January meeting, the commissioners discussed aspects of city staff’s three recommended zoning amendments at length on March 8 after taking time in the past two months to review materials with staff separately, in detail.
The amendments can be described as clarifications, consolidations of permit procedures, and modifying the level of authority necessary to make decisions on non-controversial projects. The Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to keep the debate going at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, March 22.
Last week’s action was the latest in the process to ease permitting for both staff and applicants, which initially began in mid-2022 when the council “supported various permit procedures in the Zoning Code,” according to a city staff report.
Associate Planner Christopher Wright went into more detail behind the three amendments in a presentation to the commission. The first would clarify the review process for members of the public by updating zoning code tables to list which entity within the city has the authority to review a different permit, and the correct process for each permit.
Wright added that the second main Zoning Code change would consolidate six public hearing applications into two, requiring staff to continue to review a project by traditional city standards but changing how the staff “packages” the permits.
“The overall goal here is that the public would have less confusion on what to apply for,” said Wright. “It’d be more intuitive (as to) what permit applies.”
Consolidation would also maximize staff time by allowing them to handle more projects, according to Wright. Numerous permits would be rolled into a Cultural Heritage permit, applying strictly to historical buildings in San Clemente, and into a development permit for other projects.
Lastly, the final amendment would implement three types of streamlining measures intended to maintain General Plan consistency and reduce the decision level for non-controversial projects, while keeping the option to refer projects to higher entities for review.
The types include general procedures, administrative development permits, and adjusting the levels of review. An example under the umbrella of general procedures includes allowing for the council to expedite the review process by a majority vote if they want the project in front of them, which currently isn’t possible.
Regarding administrative development permits, Wright said streamlining would update staff review to be objective by replacing findings with standards they can check off and replacing broader project categories with a defined list of projects that have criteria to meet to be eligible for approval.
It would also improve transparency by listing staff decisions on City Council agendas, in addition to Planning Commission agendas, allowing the public and councilmembers to pull an item for review during meetings.
As to which city entity would be tasked with considering a permit application for approval, the proposed amendment looks to change review requirements for numerous project types, such as new single-family properties or duplexes across the street from a historic building.
The amendment, if approved, would mean certain projects previously under the Planning Commission’s purview would instead go to Zoning Administration, while other projects would go to city staff review instead of Zoning Administration.
In the case of new single-family homes and duplexes being developed across from a historic structure, such projects would change from needing commission approval of a permit to Zoning Administration approval of a development permit.
Economic Development Officer Jonathan Lightfoot provided more insight on the example of projects across from historic buildings.
“In that case, when it’s across the street, some of those elements that we would be looking at in the staff review process wouldn’t come into play,” Lightfoot said. “A line-of-sight study is not going to be as relevant when it’s not an adjacent building, for instance, so some of the elements reviewed in a Planning Commission report when it is adjacent wouldn’t necessarily come into play for this type of a review.”
After the staff presentation concluded, Commissioner Brent Davis read his own prepared statement on the matter of streamlining.
He acknowledged that the proposed changes would drastically lighten staff’s workload in handling projects, but expressed that he wanted to be cautious for fear of allowing an administrative mistake to slip through the cracks and bypass higher oversight, leading to a larger issue for the city.
“I understand the spirit of what is being proposed; I just don’t know that the changes in their entirety (are) healthy for the city,” Davis said.
The commission reviewed 11 of the 17 proposed streamlining items line by line, issuing recommendations for each of the proposed changes listed within the items, before closing the agenda item until another meeting.