On Tuesday, the Oakley City Council held a work session on the creation of an Oakley Planning Commission which has prompted the city to create a survey to send out to residents to gauge interest in participation.
The city had a planning commission for approximately 10-years before it was deactivated in 2009. The goal of Tuesdays work session was for the council to provide feedback to staff on a direction.
Back in January of 2016, the council discussed the idea of recreating the planning commission, however, it opted for a “Planning Commission Advisory Group”.
During Tuesdays meeting, Joshua McMurray, Community Development Director, explained during a presentation that the city does have a planning commission, which is the city council who hears development topics as they come forward.
“The goal of the work session is to gain your feedback and direction of how you would like staff to proceed because there are a series of things we would have to do to establish a separate body as a planning commission,” stated McMurray.
The goal and responsibility of a planning commission is to “really plan” within the General Plan, Municipal Code to review policies within codes stated McMurray. He noted that the planning commission does have pros and cons to it.
He explained they can act as an advisory to the city council to provide recommendations or an approving authority—the council would have to define the duties and authority. He cautioned the council if they moved forward to have this commission to set up in an “commendation role” as its not a formally established committee at this time and it will take time to interview and appoint.
The term for the commissioner could be “staggered” like the city council of 4-year terms.
McMurray also stated the cost of creating a planning commission could cost anywhere from $50k to $100k depending on development activity—which is high right now.
“Having a planning commission adds another layer (of staff time) and I don’t say that in a negative way,” stated McMurray who highlighted if they were an approving body planning commission, they would have to prepare the same amount of paperwork as they do to the city council meeting. Plus, additional paperwork for a city council for the same item which is duplication of work.
Last year, 17 projects were brought forward to the city council last year in 2020 and of those, 6 could have been approved based on code of the planning commission while the other 11 would have needed planning commission recommendation to a city council action.
During public comments, Conan Moats stated he believe Oakley needed a planning commission and has the potential to actually save the city money if development is done properly and set expectations. He also said it would improve quality of life and economic development.
“It would give more stakeholders a voice,” stated Moats. “You can look at it as they have the approval power and it takes it away from us, but in local government power sharing with different bodies is important. The idea that we don’t need one, it was removed in 2008-09, that was the height of the great recession when there wasn’t much development so maybe in that time period where Oakley in terms of its development, it made sense to dissolve the planning commission, but now, I think we see so much development going on here I think its really important to have one in place so I am hoping you guys move forward in that direction and this is something that gets moved forward in a sense of urgency.”
Councilmember George Fuller had concerns over streamlining but asked how professional organizations viewed planning commissions. McMurray responded it depended on the jurisdiction but not a one size fits all.
City Manager Bryan Montgomery explained that it depends on the quality of the commission from training to being able to run a meeting. He recalled back at the time when Oakley had its planning commission, the city council regretted its planning commission because it was often the city council who was appealing decisions by the Planning Commission.
“From my perspective, if they are trained and very capable, educated planning commission, it can be a help. If not, it can be one of the biggest deterrent to growth of any community,” stated Montgomery. “One planning commissioner can delay projects for months, if not years.”
Councilmember Aaron Meadows asked about cost and how it was not in their budget and if it would have to be approved in the 2021-22 budget. Montgomery confirmed, but believed at the mid-year, the funds would be there if needed.
Montgomery also stated if they moved forward to pick the best possible people which would reduce the cost because they would not have 5-to-6 meetings on the same project.
Meadows clarified if they approve the planning commissioners, they can also remove them. Montgomery stated they could, but recommended the council give them recommendation authority in the beginning.
“It’s easier to give more authority over time than to take it away,” stated Montgomery. “I would encourage you to consider that, it’s more recommendation in the beginning and after a year reassess it.”
Meadows then asked if they moved forward with a planning commission, how long would it take to put in place? McMurray stated in his draft, it could come back by early March. With an application process, 45-days and by June could begin interviewing candidates. He also estimates by July-August timeline for when these individuals would be seated.
Meadows also questioned if the city council moves to District elections in 2022, would the planning commission also move to Districts or would they be “at large” appointments. Staff said it could be at-large and they were not obligated for the planning body.
Vice Mayor Randy Pope explained the reason he was given when first elected was that it was a “rogue council and all their denials and approvals came back to the council anyways and overturned and the council questioned why they are overturning everything they do. We will just do it right from their perspective of right.”
Pope stated they were the ones the voters put in the seats and planning commissioners were “unelected bureaucratic positions” and a lot more bureaucracy. He further highlighted how he in the past wanted to bring back the planning commission and felt strongly about it but didn’t have the support of the council at the time which created the current planning commission advisor as a hybrid.
Pope argued that in this hybrid advisor role, they have five advisors that they rarely hear from.
“That’s disappointing that there is this push for a planning commission but are there going to be people who are actually going to be active planning commissioners? Ya, they are appointed by us and if they go rogue, we can unappoint them and remove them but then does it look like a puppet council where if they go against the council are they going to have to say yes and be a yes man? Do they really have independent approval authority if we don’t like what they are going to do? Are we going to kick them off? Then its just an extra step and more burden,” explained Pope who also called for training if they moved forward.
Pope added that if the planning commission does not have approval authority, there was not much value in having them saying more sets of eyes on a project the better, but did cautioned if that extra set of eyes was worth it with more bureaucracy and burden.
“We have extra eyes on it, if they want to participate, they can be one of our planning advisors,” stated Pope noting they are the planning commission. “When I was mayor I strongly felt like we needed to bring the planning commission back and now I am a little more torn about it. We have a planning commission and its elected, its us. The lack of interest in the planning advisor doesn’t bode well in my mind that if there is such a cry we keep hearing about citizens demanding a planning commission, well then why isn’t there involvement in the advisory program.”
Pope continued saying the planning commission used to be a training ground to get on the city council with the brown act and learning how things worked, but argued they need training before they serve on a planning commission before moving up.
“We need that before they get on the planning commission to see if they have the experience and knowledge. We don’t want this to be the place where they are making their first mistakes. Then our residents and businesses are suffering the consequences of that,” stated Pope who urged them not to rush on this.
City Councilmember Anissa Williams had concerns over natural redundancies that would come before the city council anyway. She suggested the city put out a survey to gage interest noting she had never even heard of the planning advisory committee before.
“If we get a little more engagement around this, we would have more confidence,” stated Williams.
McMurray said they could do a survey but cautioned to take the results with a “grain of salt” because its easy to hit “yes” if they are interested but signing up for a four-year term is different.
Montgomery said they could ask the question on whether people would be interested in serving as an “advisor” or a “commissioner” saying they could bring on new advisors for six months for training if they move forward with a commissioner.
Mayor Sue Higgins asked if planning commissioners could be elected to other boards such as the Ironhouse Sanitary District and if they needed to look at an ordinance on what they would want to do in that situation.
Fuller stated he is hearing over and over again the call for a planning commission and the public has an issue with trust of the city.
“The situation is we are notifying the public at the last minute when the plans are already going through and its very nice. Then we say there is no other choice we got to do it,” explained Fuller. “With a planning commission, you get the idea out to the people to allow feedback in what they would like in their community. I think it would be good for business.”
Fuller argued that the city manager could not quantify the cost at this time and they did have a mid-year budget they could amend.
“I look at the quality of people in this city, I think we have the quality of people in this city. The people in this city have entrusted us to make sound decisions and to go off the integrity to make qualifications for selection to the commission. I have confidence in my colleagues who would maintain the quality and ethics of the community,” stated Fuller. “We need to say to them, we believe in you and there are commissioners here who would come forward.”
Fuller says he believed in a planning commission and they could put it together.
Higgins suggested they move forward with a survey to see if people would want to commit to a four-year term but didn’t want to rush it because they needed to create ordinances and create qualifications.
Meadows encouraged if they do a survey not to rush it and really think about it while figuring out what they need and looking for.
City Staff will be putting together a survey and plan on bringing it back with results at the second meeting in February.