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Where Permit Applications Go to Die

Amy Wynn is a professional planner from the Mendocino Coast whose business is called “Wynn Coastal Planning & Biology.” Ms. Wynn has already established a well-deserved reputation for helping Coast businesses and property owners navigate the County’s byzantine planning maze, made even more complicated for Coastal applications by the Coastal Commission’s rules squatting squid-like on top of the County’s Rorschach-like rules. 

Last Tuesday Ms. Wynn took the opportunity to comment on the County Leadership Team’s deployment of one of their favorite buzzphrases — “removing roadblocks” from various County processes.

Ms. Wynn suggested that one of the “roadblocks” was “massive slowdowns” caused by a lack of “predictability of interpretation.” By that she meant that she couldn’t get a reliable interpretation of a rule from County staff — it depended on who you called and when. She cited a case when the County took months to get an interpretation on a rule from the State, then when the interpretation went against her client, the County refused to even consider overruling that narrow interpretation when it would have been a way to get her client's simple project approved.

Ms. Wynn also complained that it can take six to twelve months just to get an answer out of the County Counsel’s office — a phenomenon we’ve heard described as “where permits go to die.” This problem occurs even on the simplest questions, Ms. Wynn said, even when all an applicant needs is a generic rubberstamp on a project name, even a renumber if it’s delayed into another year can still take months. “I don’t know what’s going on,” said the frustrated Coast planner, perhaps unaware she speaks for most people's experiences with that famously obfuscating office. “There’s a lack of tracking, a lack of staffing – whatever it is, it’s slowing down economic development. I have pensioners who want to do a minor remodel or improvement or a second unit and the process drags out and costs more money for planning and permits and fees and sometimes people give up because there’s not enough money left to make the project happen. People have mortgages to pay on land that they can’t develop or use or sell. The County Counsel’s office workflow needs to be improved.” 

Sometimes it’s just the wording of a deed restriction after planning staff has approved the project, Wynn continued, causing projects to be downsized. Sometimes people abandon their projects after they’ve spent money on planning. Sometimes property sales are lost because buyers are discouraged from even applying… 

“People run away screaming,” said Wynn, “when told it could take two to four years for a building permit. And now I have to add more time to that. It’s tough to help people.”

The only response from the County Apparatus was from County Counsel Katherine Elliott who didn’t deny the problem. Instead, Elliott suggested that Ms. Wynn not reveal such terrible realities in public, but to bring the complaints to Ms. Elliott privately. (Where they can be silently buried just like the permit applications.)

Unfortunately, Ms. Elliott’s attitude is common and is one of the main reasons that Official Mendo is so reluctant to prepare even the most basic management reports for their sprawling departments. If Ms. Elliott, for example, had to report on permit backlogs or project status or processing times along with staffing and budget status it would be nearly impossible to hide how poorly managed and staffed her department is. Yet here she is this week begging a professional planning consultant to keep her mouth shut about the problems the County Counsel's office is creating, problems which would be much easier to solve if Elliott had to report on them to the Board. (Maybe, but given the non-performance of the present Supervisors, they're just one more obstacle on the road to a permit, all the while talking about expediting the County's housing stock.) And our well-paid CEO and Board don’t even raise the issue of dealing with the problem or improving reporting.

* * *

The Ironies Just Keep On Coming. 

ITEM 5l on Tuesday’s agenda is a request from the Health and Human Services Agency for the Board declare a “shelter crisis” in Mendocino County, thereby authorizing HHSA to apply for almost $5 million in State HEAP funds (Homeless Emergency Aid Program — or more accurately a HEAP-o’money for us). This attractive one-time sum has the grant gobblers salivating. It could really help local homelessness if it was applied and spent in ways described in the recent Marbut Report (which suggested much for effective and focused homeless service delivery). But this item as presented to the Board is nothing but a request the Supervisors to give a blank check to HHSA and the “Mendocino County Homeless Continuum of Care” people, the same people who are so actively resisting implementation of the Marbut Report in favor of simply drawing down as much money for themselves.

The Supes should not approve this item unless it comes with a specific Supervisor-approved plan on how the money will be spent in accordance with the numbers and proposals in the Marbut report, which the Board specifically requested HHSA and the Continuum of Care staff to proceed with.

But if history is any guide, the blank check option will be approved. 

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