Letter: Attacks against HMB planning commissioners are unfounded

Letter to the editor

Posted by on Sat, September 16, 2006

Some of the commissioners were very concerned about overriding the recommendations of the California Coastal Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of ignoring provisions of our Local Coastal Program (LCP) and zoning ordinances.

Sofia Freer is a former member of the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission

Two members of the city council attacked two of our planning commissioners without any justification following a marathon six-hour commission meeting on Aug 24. This could have been avoided if the city’s planning staff had not forced an issue by putting it on the agenda before all the facts were known.

At the council’s September 5 meeting, one outspoken member of the public accused "the chair and one other commissioner" of subjecting planning staff to "vitriolic criticism."  His charge was later echoed in somewhat muted tones by the Mayor and one of the other council members.  I viewed the videotape of the commission meeting several times, and saw no evidence of disrespect on the part of any of the commissioners. 

If there was any disrespect, it was on the part of the planning staff toward the commission and the public.  Staff chose to ignore the planning commission July 13 request for additional information, and decided to eliminate prior conditions of approval without the knowledge of the commission or public review.  Five of the seven planning commissioners expressed disappointment with these actions.  During my year on the commission, I saw a number of cases when city planners failed to comply with commission requests for additional information or changed staff reports without public discussion. But I never saw anything like what happened at the August 24 meeting.

During the Sept 5 City Council meeting, the Mayor said she had seen a videotape of the planning commission meeting and was "distressed" and "disturbed" with the way staff was treated.  She said was "embarrassed" by the proceedings, and felt that the applications of "member agencies" should be placed early on any given agenda out of "respect". Another councilmember, who had not seen the tape, declared that the "meeting did not work", and asked, "What happens when there is inappropriate behavior of planning commissioners toward staff or public?"  The one councilmember who was physically present at the planning commission meeting had no criticism of the proceedings.

I have spoken and written publicly about the need to be civil to one another and to maintain a neutral forum for diverse opinions: between staff members, elected officials, appointed boards and members of the attending public.  Any dispassionate observer would have to agree that the most egregious assaults on civility at these meetings come from members of the attending public.  It’s a shame that we don’t have a camera or microphone directed at the audience. [Letters to the editor of the Review]

Some members of the public and the Mayor also objected to the fact that CCWD’s application for pipeline replacement was placed last on the agenda. There has been a tradition in both city council and planning commission meetings to reorganize an agenda, as needed, to accommodate the largest number of audience members. The chair’s motion to change the agenda was unanimously approved by the commission.  Should exceptions to this courteous behavior be made when the applicant represents another agency? Does that not make some citizens more equal than others?

Unfortunately, this meant that the pipeline project was discussed into the wee hours of the morning.  As I listened to the videotape of the meeting, two things became apparent: (1) None of the commissioners wanted to torpedo the project, and (2) Some of the commissioners were very concerned about overriding the recommendations of the California Coastal Commission [letter from the Coastal Commission] and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and of ignoring provisions of our Local Coastal Program (LCP) and zoning ordinances.

The coastal commission cautioned that adequate mitigation measures could not be determined without wetland delineation or without a detailed description of both biological resources and specific locations of all construction activities.  In a similar vein, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not satisfied that the CCWD’s plan took adequate care for endangered species. The city’s LCP also requires protection of wetlands and habitats. The city’s zoning code requires that a biological report performed by a consultant selected by the city be submitted prior to development review.  The zoning code, which also requires a use permit for pipeline installation through wetlands, makes an additional case for formal wetland delineation.

Had staff not rushed CCWD’s application onto the agenda before all the facts were known, and the concerns of the regulatory agencies had been addressed, the item could have been placed at the top of a future agenda.  If that had been done, the meeting would have "worked" (to use the councilmember’s word) very well indeed.  The problem was not with the planning commission, but rather with the rush to force a decision on a project that was not yet ripe for approval.

Why this was done is anyone’s guess. We do know that CCWD has been pressuring the City Council for rapid approval of their project [Letter from CCWD to the City].

I can’t understand why staff members need to be protected from respectful questioning, no matter how tough the questions may be.  After all, they are adults who are paid to do a job.  Admittedly their work can be difficult and stressful. Anyone who has worked with the public on a daily basis and who has had to operate in public knows that full well.  Most of the staff does good work most of the time under these difficult conditions.  Of course, the planning department’s job would be easier if the planning commission rubber-stamped all their recommendations and all elected and appointed officials ignored their errors. But is it good governance if elected officials or their appointees look the other way when members of the staff fail to provide requested information or to take direction from them as required by law?

Sofia Freer
Half Moon Bay


Comment 1
Sat, September 16, 2006 11:06am
ken king
All my comments

Thank you, Sofia Freer, for your calm assessment of the latest Planning Commission flap. Not satisfied with having stacked the Commission with five of the seven commissioners, the Council majority and its cronies are determined not just to dominate the development agenda, but to negatively bias public perception against anyone raising legitimate conerns regarding the law. Their way or the highway, black and white, cut and dried. Your letter at least helps the public get a whiff of what’s going on around here, although it’s not a good smell.

Further insight into the behind-the-scenes lobbying activity associated with this project can be found at the CCWD link below. (start reading at the bottom of page 1)

http://www.coastsidewater.org/minutes/082406-special-minutes.pdf

Comment 3
Tue, September 19, 2006 6:38pm
Jim Larimer
All my comments

The request for a CDP was sent to the City just a few days short of a full year before the Planning Commission Meeting that finally approved it in a 5 to 2 vote. Lansing and McCarthy were the only members voting no.

Lansing put this issue of vital importance to the community last on the agenda for that nights meeting. The vote came at 1:35 AM the next day. The meeting lasted over six hours and almost all of the talking was done by Mr. Lansing.

The meeting was recorded at the request of the Water District. Anyone who desires to watch it can contact the local TV station, channel 6, and obtain a copy. Be sure to bring a long tape.

The project was originally approved at the beginning of 1999, almost eight years ago. Describing the process as rushed is absurd. How many years does Ms. Freer believe is appropriate to evaluate this project?

Jim Larimer

In response to Mr. Larimer:

First there is the complaint about the unanimous 7-0 vote to place CCWD’s pipeline project at the end of the August 24 agenda. There were two other projects on the agenda that night, both of which involved complex and controversial neighborhood issues. Both were “continued items” so it made sense to address those before going on to the “new item” which was the CCWD pipeline project. The City staff makes up the agenda, and the Planning Commissioners have no say in how many items will be heard at each meeting. There were more green sheets (requests to speak) submitted by members of the public for each of the other two projects than for the CCWD project. So the Planning Commission unanimously made the decision to get the maximum number of people home early by placing the CCWD project at the end. Somebody had to go last, after all.

Second, there is the complaint about the meeting running to 1:30am. One of the reasons the agenda was so stacked that night, in my opinion, was that CCWD had heavily lobbied the City to expedite their project through the planning process. The project was placed on the schedule for a public hearing before the mandated 45-day comment period for the required biological study had closed. The rushed nature of the project created a lot of unresolved issues which lengthened the hearing.

For example, important comments from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist that were sent during the 45-day comment period (which ended on August 3) were not discovered until Monday, August 21, only three days before the scheduled public hearing on Thursday, August 24. The biologist stated in writing that “The Service [USFWS] does not feel that the minimization and compensation measures presented for the disturbance of habitat for these two species are adequate…” In addition, there was no wetland delineation done for the project even though the project footprint spanned two creeks and numerous other riparian areas in City limits. Hence, there was no way to know if the City’s wetland protection ordinances were being complied with.

The unresolved issues were serious enough that the Coastal Commission staff took the extraordinary step of recommending in writing that the project be delayed. I have never seen that happen before.

Given the lateness of the hour, people may wonder why the item was not continued until a later date. Actually, there was a motion to continue the item to September 28. The continuation would have provided plenty of time to address the many unresolved issues without delaying the project start-date. That motion failed 3-4. If the continuation motion had passed, I have no doubt that Mr. Larimer would be accusing the Planning Commission of “obstructing” the pipeline project.

Lastly, those who take the time to watch the videotape expecting to see some fireworks are going to be disappointed. I share Sofia’s regret that the camera was not pointed at the audience that night.

Comment 5
Thu, September 21, 2006 5:50pm
Sofia Freer
All my comments

Mr. Larimer, here are some inconvenient FACTS: (1) Regulatory agencies requested the delay of approval until CCWD addressed all their environmental concerns. (2) The application did not comply with the city’s Local Coastal Program or zoning ordinances.  (3) The Planning Director sets agendas, not the Planning Commission. (4) A greater number of residents were signed up to speak on EACH of the other two agenda items.
OPINIONS: (1) If CCWD had done all their “homework” and complied with the laws, the project would have sailed right through. There would have been no need for a special strategy meeting just prior to the PC hearing.  By the way, how much did this meeting (which involved the General Manager, Legal council, District Engineer, Biological Consultant, and Administrative Assistant) cost the ratepayer? (2) CCWD’s strategy was to stress that public “health and safety” would be jeopardized by ANY delay and persuade Planning Commissioners’ to overlook the project’s unresolved environmental issues.
(3) If CCWD directors were really concerned with public health and safety, why didn’t they make sure that they had adhered to all applicable laws before submitting the application?

Comment 6
Thu, September 21, 2006 11:09pm
Jim Larimer
All my comments

The Planning Commission spent three hours on the El Granada pipeline permit with Mr. Lansing dominating the discussion on this issue for most of those three hours. Lansing’s objections were mostly based upon his personal version of the appropriate procedures. When the Planning Director, who is a professional hired because of his knowledge of appropriate process, suggested that the procedures being followed are the proper ones Mr. Lansing asserted that he knew better. This went on for most of those three hours. Ms. Freer apparently has the same beliefs.

Opinions are just that, opinions. The process required by law is often different than someone’s personal opinion of what it ought to be. Many people do not agree with Lansing and Freer on this point. Five members of the Planning Commission disagreed, as did the City’s Director of Planning. So do attorneys who specialize in this area of law and process.

Delay is what some people who oppose improvements to the community’s infrastructure, for example, roads, water, schools, welcome and desire. This permit had been filed with the City almost one full year before the hearing. The original request to build this project was first approved in 1999, so it would seem that years of delay are not adequate to satisfy Mr. Lansing or Ms. Freer.

In the meantime there exists a preventable hazard to our community. We need to replace this aging and worn out pipeline with a new and modern one capable of providing adequate water pressures to meet fire safety standards. These risks care not at all about delays.

Jim Larimer

From the minutes of the August 24 special meeting of the CCWD Board of Directors (page 4):
http://www.coastsidewater.org/minutes/082406-special-minutes.pdf

“Director Larimer proposed an amendment to the motion to request a conference with City of Half Moon Bay staff, upon the general agreement that the [Coastal Development] permit would be issued, and that the issues of a variance in terms of the interpretation of the biological mitigation and the need for it, be reviewed with staff, engineer, consultants, and legal counsel representing the District and that they arrive at a modification of Exhibit B [conditions of approval] that is mutually satisfactory.”

This is a bit of inside baseball, but I think it is worth noting because of the insight it provides into Mr. Larimer’s way of thinking about environmental laws.

Mr. Larimer was proposing the idea that, after the Coastal Development Permit for the pipeline was issued, that CCWD try to persuade City staff to loosen up the biological mitigation measures that were to be imposed by the Planning Commission as conditions of approval on the project (Exhibit B refers to the conditions of approval). These are legally binding conditions that are part of the Coastal Development Permit—-they cannot be modified without a formal application by CCWD and then a public hearing by the Planning Commission to approve any proposed changes.

Mr. Larimer was proposing an action that, if it had occurred, would have been illegal. To their credit, the other CCWD directors did not accept Mr. Larimer’s proposal.

Comment 8
Fri, September 22, 2006 8:45pm
Jim Larimer
All my comments

Mr. Lansing’s interpretation of my motives with regard to whatever I say or do are just that his interpretation. That my motives are not what he thinks they are is hardly surprising, since he appears not to listen to what is being said most of the time.

The additional biological study, which was very poorly done at best, was paid for by Water District customers at the request of the City. The water district did not object to this additional cost, although hundreds of thousands of dollars have already been spent to study this project.

The new study was sloppy work that did not even appear to understand the differences between construction methods or boundaries of the project. Areas not near the project were called out as if they would be endangered by the work, although no work would be performed near these sites.

This probably happened becasue there was at most minimal effort on the part of the former leadership of the Planning Department to work with the Water District on this study. As a consequence some very serious misunderstandings resulted. For example, the report did not understanding the significance of the choice of construction methods or the location of the work.

My opinion, let me say it directly and not through Mr Lansing’s rose colored vision, is that the City ought to repay the Water District for such a poorly done study. It was not worth the money.

Mr. Lansing has every right to think and believe whatever he wants to believe. That does not make it correct.

Jim Larimer

Well, let me just say that Mr. Larimer’s claims that the City’s biological study was too restrictive on CCWD (in terms of its recommended mitigation measures) is directly contradicted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist’s opinion. In fact, the USFWS biologist felt that the City’s recommended mitigation measures did not go far enough to ensure protection of the sensitive habitat.

Of course, I do not expect Mr. Larimer (who is not a trained biologist) to ever admit he was wrong about anything. The fact is, CCWD spent a lot of money (the public’s money) to hire their own biologist in an attempt to weasel out of complying with the law. Unfortunately, this is how CCWD does business—-bullying every regulatory body in their path to get their way.

Comment 10
Sun, September 24, 2006 10:57am
Jim Larimer
All my comments

Mr. Lansing makes my point about not listening. I said the study was poorly done and it was. After reading it, it would not be hard to imagine that the author had never bothered to visit the pipe line ride of way or to correlate the boundaries of the project with locations along Hwy 1 where the construction will occur.

To me the report was similar to paying an auto mechanic to fix and test drive your car only to find that your car’s odometer has exactly the same reading it did when you brought it in to the shop. That analogy may be a bit over the top, but the errors and misunderstandings in the report about the project were gross.

Jim Larimer

So there you have the thinking of Mr. Larimer. Planning Commission Chairman Lansing is wrong. The California Coastal Commission is wrong. The previous Planning Diretor is wrong. The biological report is wrong.

This is not the type of mindset that is going to preserve the beauty and uniqueness of Half Moon Bay.

Hi Jack—

I am new to this discussion, but wonder if Dr Larimer is wrong, or if it MAY be possible that your list of entities are wrong.  Stranger things have happened….

I would be soooo happy if Gov officials—planning commissions, coastal commissions,  planning directors…would simply follow the law and I could quit this posting stuff..

But since I know that you followed the recent LCP hearings for Midcoast (possibly) and HMB LCP updates (for certain), you would see that many individuals may not have strictly followed the law, so that is why we are having this discourse..

All the best to our community..AND we can have it all..prosperity, beauty, uniqueness, and dont forget the kids and our future..

So, what is wrong with infrastructure?  How does it hurt beauty and uniqueness?  ?

terry gossett
moss beach

Comment 13
Sun, September 24, 2006 7:09pm
Hal Bogner
All my comments

Mr. Gossett,

I am curious, do you have a list of particulars to support your statement that you made (above) to Mr. McCarthy that “...you would see that many individuals may not have strictly followed the law, so that is why we are having this discourse.”?

Your statement suggest that you have such a list, and it would advance the public interest if you would back your statement up by posting such information here.

Best,

Hal M. Bogner
Half Moon Bay

Terry,

I’m all for infrastructure, as followed by good community planning and California , as sought after by the Coastal Commission guidelines that protect our fragile coastide community from unthinking development that would turn it into Daly City or Foster City. And I’m not for the hairbrained schemes now being floated that would carve out our foothills to build more roads to enbale more subdivisions that will create gridlock. Our Coastal Commission doesn’t support those kind of boondoogles either.

- Jack McCarthy

Hi Hal,

I don’t maintain a list of individuals not following the law. 

The example foremost in my mind in responding to Jack was regarding the former Planning Director of HMB, and requesting that he follow the Coastal Act suggestion for maximum public participation and also follow the law regarding the CA Code of Regulations Section 13552 which states that The LCP amendment submittal shall include…copies or summaries of significant comments received and of the local government or governing authority’s response to the comments.

thanks

terry gossett
moss beach

Mr. Gosset falsely (and knowingly) accuses the former HMB planning director of “not following the law” in regard to last year’s LCP update.

The fact is, the City issued a 47-page document that responded to the many questions raised during the LCP update hearings. The document can be found here:

http://www.half-moon-bay.ca.us/7-12-05-Responses_to_Public_Comments_on_Proposed_Amendments_to_the_City_of_Half_Moon_Bay_LCP-GP.pdf

A copy of the above document was mailed to Mr. Gosset’s home address. Unfortunately, no amount of correcting the distortions and untruths emananting from certain people seems to work—-they just keep making stuff up.

Comment 17
Mon, September 25, 2006 12:38pm
terry gossett
All my comments

Hi Kevin

I started requesting compliance with the Code as early as Feb or March, and was quoted in the document you cited for a 4/20 letter to the HMB CC under Responses to Public Comment #66.

I was pleased when, in July, the Planning Director complied with the law.  What I was also seeking was answers to questions from the public throughout the LCP process as well, so that a better understanding of the evolving document could be assimilated.

It is hardly maximum participation by the public if many of their questions are not answered to the end of the process. As far as I can tell the final document that you cited did satisfy the law…prior to submittal to the CCC.

terry gossett

Comment 18
Mon, September 25, 2006 9:07pm
Ray Olson
All my comments

Just read Sofia’s letter to the HMB Review Editor. Sofia, why do you suggest that Jim Grady’s nominee to the planning commisions was denied: “based not on experience or ability, but solely on politcal grounds”? I wasn’t at the meeting where this issue came up and would be interested (as well as others) in understanding the facts behind your statement.
Thanks
Ray