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Planning Commissioner Criticizes City Staff, Cites 'Turf War' Over Vision for Mill Valley

Outgoing Chairman David Rand says in his annual report to the City Council that there have been "significant lapses in communication" and "different visions" between the commission and the city's planning department.

The normally ho-hum annual report to the Mill Valley City Council from the outgoing chair of the Planning Commission took a stark turn Monday night as David Rand called into question City Hall's view of the commission and said the two entities are engaged in a “turf war” on issues with “different visions” for Mill Valley.

In his verbal report before the council Monday night, Rand, whose three-year term on the commission began in March 2010, said that since he joined the board there has been a “basic philosophical disconnect [that] speaks volumes about the issues we have.” He said there have been “significant lapses in communication” between city staff and the commission. Rand's presentation was representative of his own opinions, and not clearned with any other commissioner. 

“The problem is best summed up by the introduction that I received on the day I was sworn in,” Rand said. “We were told then, quite bluntly, that staff leadership did not believe in the usefulness of the Planning Commission in Mill Valley and did not see a need for it.”

City Council members reacted with surprise and concern, but had minimal disucssion on the issue.

“You’ve thrown down a pretty serious gauntlet,” Vice Mayor Shawn Marshall said after Rand’s presentation. “I think we need to pay attention to it. I think a lot of this should be taken up offline.”

Mayor Andy Berman said the Council has asked for an investigation into the allegations.

"Our silence then or now should not be interpreted as validating the statements made or the manner in which they were shared," Berman said in an email. "Until that investigation is completed, I really can not comment further." 

In his presentation, Rand expressed the need to formalize a requirement for a study session for all new construction so that projects don’t go straight into the design review process with applicants creating expensive and detailed plans that contain basic problems.

“Understandably, owners of projects that are not approved on the basis of such fundamental issues are very upset at the wasted cost of preparing complete drawings before the underlying conceptual sketches are reviewed,” Rand said. 

When an applicant chooses to forgo a study session and goes straight to the design review, the problem is compounded by the fact that Planning Department staff frequently recommend approval of the project, according to Rand. The project applicants are often then "surprised by the commission's lack of enthusiasm," he said.

“I have requested that staff refrain from setting forth a recommendation that the commission approve design review,” Rand said. “It has been my experience that the visions that those on the commission have for the development of Mill Valley very frequently differ from those of staff on those subject matters that go into design review.” 

Rand cited "one very large project" that "is still pending," likely the controversial Blithedale Terrace proposal to build 20 residential units on land at the base of Kite Hill along East Blithedale Ave. near Camino Alto. That project has languished in recent months before the Planning Commission formally holds a hearing on the project's Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and its overall merits.

Planning Director Mike Moore said part of the Planning Department’s job is to schedule projects that it feels should be approved for the Planning Commission’s agenda.

“Our recommendation is only one component of the complete public hearing process,” Moore said. “Part of our responsibility as staff is to be able to make a recommendation. And that’s exactly what it is. It’s a recommendation.”

Moore said he was surprised by Rand’s presentation, and wasn’t previously aware of his concerns. 

“My department and I have to have a close working relationship with the Planning Commission and have good communication to make sure we’re on the same page on a lot of these issues,” Moore said. “If that communication is not the way it should be, obviously that’s important and something we need to get resolved.”

The City Council also briefly revisited Rand’s presentation toward the end of its meeting.

"I think we need to follow up on the planning commission presention," said Councilmember Garry Lion. "I don't know quite how to do that but I think people ought to put thier heads together and in a tactful way figure out how real and deep the problem is."

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Thrasy Bulus January 29, 2013 at 09:40 PM
Anyone who believes Mill Valley has anything remotely resembling actual "small town character" is delusional in the extreme. In fact, the poorly-conceived and often contradictory mandates of the municipal code, the "design guidelines" and the myriad advisory commission recommendations are to blame for a civic environment where simple, logical, fair and sustainable solutions are impossible, off the table forever. Instead, our regulatory regime favors full employment mandates for hack architects and the various lawyers, consultants and other "real estate professionals." Budgets for simple projects balloon and become unworkable, leaving massive overbuilding as they only type of project that pencils out. Whatever small town character (real people doing real work with pride in the simple beauty of their neighborhoods and their lives, who care about their neighbors rather than seeing them as obstacles) is sacrificed in favor of estate-type development and all that comes along with it. In the context of Mill Valley "small town character" is nothing more than a slogan to sell real estate. And what have all the glorious professionals created for the town? Endless mindless repetition of generic and unimaginative upscale hackwork. The sum total of which over the past 30 years does not equal the completely unplanned beauty of an actual small town developing over time. The small-town character of Mill Valley died a death of a thousand cuts some time ago.
Ken Conroy January 30, 2013 at 05:18 AM
Nick you are correct. NIMBY thrives in Marin and is certainly not confined to low income housing. Athletic fields are just one example. People who might otherwise support a project become fierce opponents simply because they do not want it built in close proximity to their home.
Rebecca Chapman January 31, 2013 at 05:06 PM
applause, applause & more applause for david rand being a real gentleman at the following planning commission meeting (one week later). to expose this controversy from within took immense courage, & of course, i was interested to see who might show up in the aftermath. obviously this conversation could go on ad nauseum, & in many ways already has, as so well stated above, but i just wanted to show my support again. houses that look like a kid drew up the plans, based on the most recent pottery barn &/or restoration hardware catalog cover don't seem worthy of an area whose populus does seem to have at least some natural vision. with all the airplane travel & stays in cool, modern & chic hotels, one would think we'd finally be ready for some sensible updates around town. and architects who get their projects pushed through with only minor revisions come across as a bit biased, that's all. i'm not a trained architect, just the daughter of a visionary one, & the things my dad used to laugh about so easily, i still find rather upsetting. oh, yeah. so THAT'S what all those bottles of scotch were for...
Rebecca Chapman February 01, 2013 at 10:49 PM
disagree. the provincialism that exists in this town prevails because of small-mindedness, big money & power being weilded irresponsibly, at so many levels. why such a lack of imagination in materials, layout, placement & all the other elements that go into a building? because people fear change & like what they're used to, sure. but, if you read the zoning ordinances, look through applicant's files, talk to architects, clients et al, & do some simple digging around, you really get an idea of how city employees often control the outcomes of projects, regardless of whether or not it's up to them to do so, and often because it seems like we're living in the midst of a very convoluted popularity contest around town. so-&-so gets his project accepted because he brings revenue to the town, while such-&-such get reamed, because no one can 'decide' what the real rules are? it's nonsense. and what does longevity have to do with it? design requires talent + skill, neither of which blossom of their own accord, especially in these uninspiring hills. i've lived here for 40 years. does that make me smart, good &/or more well-deserving? judging by the fact that i've been living without a home for over 2 years, with most of the townspeople blithely looking on, clearly not. the one question i used to always nag my father with ('daddy, why does everybody want to live in the dark?') continues to go unanswered. which is sad, because the obvious answer is 'not everybody, silly girl.'
Lesa Carmean February 04, 2013 at 12:39 AM
MV has all the disadvantages of a small town and none of the advantages! Whomever could have guided its way gave up preserving the live-ability and special quality it enjoyed by the mid 1990s. Considering its possibilities, the town has become a disgrace in its disregard for the unique natural environment it is situated in. Little if any protection - or consideration - is given the flora, fauna, creeks, estuaries, and especially the redwood forest - or even the residents! I've lived here 20 years continuously and in the '60s and '70s and am sad, disappointed and angry what MV has become - an over populated, noisy, construction pocked, trashy unattractive town now consumed with over building. A bastion for yuppies taking advantage of the good will of the residents who through triple taxation provide free private quality schooling for their spoiled kids. A world of over sized housing, excessive automobiles, daylighting and topping of redwoods and indiscriminate paving with endless remodeling, road work, "improvements," traffic and other noise. The quality of life here in the canyons is a hell hole nightmare. I've lived in progressive, well managed places such as Eugene, OR, La Jolla, CA, and Santa Barbara, CA and in comparison MV appears to have no one looking out for it or the interests of the long term residents. It's been sold out. Why plan for 2030 when there was no plan whatsoever when it would have made a difference?

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