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Virus Crisis Forces Planning to Go Virtual

Josh Stephens on
Mar 23, 2020

Across the state, nearly every municipal planning department has retreated from its offices but otherwise remains open for business, at least to some extent. With the state essentially shut down for the next few weeks, with weeks or months of uncertainty thereafter, attending to matters that are measured in decades — such as general plan updates — may seem futile. 

And yet, many departments are moving ahead not only with long-range planning but also with more immediate obligations such as permit processing, in part to keep housing production going. 

The goal is both to maintain a sense of normalcy, for staff and customers alike, and to ensure that development can proceed. While the virus crisis may last only a few months, the far longer timeframe of development projects all but ensures that anything permitted now will open under far more normal conditions. 

With the governor’s orders, planning “counters,” where minor and small-scale applications are processed, have physically closed. Most departments are not holding any in-person meetings with customers. But the relatively recent advent of electronic processing may mean that some customers will not even notice the shutdown. They just have to upload the proper documents on departments’ web-based portals—no human contact needed. 

“You can do just about everything online, which is really wonderful and fortuitous because we launched our online planning portal just a month ago,” said Sacramento’s Acting Planning Director, Gregory Sandlund, whose department fully implemented its electronic system only recently. “We had very good luck.”

Not all departments are equally well equipped, though. 

“There are a lot of small rural or low-capacity communities that are struggling more,” said Karalee Browne, executive director of the Institute for Local Government.

The Long Beach planning department had allowed applicants to choose either electronic or hard-copy submissions. Christopher Koontz, Planning Manager at the City of Long Beach, said that some customers were slow to adopt electronic submission, though. Those late adopters now have no choice. 

“The customers weren’t using them, but, for four years, we’ve been trying to get everything digital,” said Koontz. “On entitlement, we were accepting paper applications up to four days ago…. That has required some adjustments, but it hasn’t been insurmountable.” 

Rather than end up on a desk at city hall, though, application materials are now being beamed to kitchen tables, easy chairs, and other improvised home offices. The vast majority of California’s planning staff members are considered “nonessential” and therefore not allowed to go to their offices, but planning departments, like many other businesses and public agencies statewide, are making do with telecommuting. 

Despite the disruption, many planners’ dockets will look the same at home as they would have at the office. For them, the shutdown is anything but a vacation. 

“We were at a record level of activity,” said Koontz. “We do have a backlog. We have a couple months of work based on things that were already filed on the entitlement side. On the plan check side, we have only about two weeks of backlog.”

For relatively straightforward cases, working in isolation may speed up certain processes. Planners can focus without distractions that naturally arise in an office setting. Departments are trying to accomplish as much as possible through staff review and are hoping to minimize the number of cases that might require reviews by planning commissions or city councils. 

“We are approving all sorts of stuff at the staff level/director level,” said Sandlund. He noted, though, that several of the department’s pressing items require discussion at planning commission and may, therefore, be delayed.

“I think the biggest bottleneck is a public hearing,” said Sandlund. “We’ve been pushing a lot of hearings down to the administrative or director level where it’s just in a conference room. But that’s not going to work if nonessential employees can’t be there.” 

Currently, many cities’ calendars show many canceled meetings and/or blank schedules for the coming weeks. In Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno, and others, meetings for planning commissions and city councils, among other bodies, have been canceled without announcements for make-up dates or online alternatives.

Planners may be aided by the fact that Newsom has relaxed certain regulations concerning public meetings. In particular, elements of the Brown Act and Bagley-Keene Act have been loosened to accommodate online meetings. Newsom’s executive order waives “all requirements in both the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act expressly or impliedly requiring the physical presence of members, the clerk or other personnel of the body, or of the public as a condition of participation in or quorum for a public meeting.” The order includes guidelines for sending public notices of online meetings and accommodations for people with disabilities.

For planners and commissions unfamiliar with conducting public meetings online, cities are sponsoring online seminars. This week, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf is presenting “How to do Online Meetings and Town Halls;” the event is sold out.

While new applications, for everything from high rises to accessory dwelling units, are sure to be slowed by the shutdown, department officials say that many planners have at least a few weeks’ worth to keep them busy in the near term. If applications do not pick up, departments may shift their attention to the long-term — and to projects that have been lingering but not getting the attention they may have deserved. 

“If current planning applications slow down, we're going to direct more resources to long-range planning,” said Sandlund. “We have a long list of ordinances we want to work on to streamline housing and address various other issues.”

In the long run, this momentary retreat from urban life may prove beneficial for cities and even for planners. As well, Browne noted that many departments are flush with grant money earmarked for long-range planning.

Planners may find that the relative calm of home affords them time to, for instance, draft new ordinances and review policies.

“In the short term, it's us digging in and doing a lot of the quiet development work….that requires a lot of concentration but that we just kept on being distracted from,” said Sandlund.

On the other hand, planners will lose the collaboration that is often crucial for devising new ideas. 

“To me, it’s more psychological,” said Julia Lave Johnston, president of the California Chapter of the American Planning Association. “People like interacting with other people. They like problem-solving, particularly if they’re developing policy.”

While collaboration can still proceed to an extent via electronic communications, a near-consensus among the state’s planners is that any agenda items that benefit from, or require, public outreach are going to be severely constrained. Across the state, charettes, information sessions, and other meetings to inform and poll stakeholders about new policies have been canceled. 

“We had citywide community workshops scheduled at the end of this month….that’s definitely not going to happen,” said Sandlund.

“Community engagement might take a bit longer to figure out,” said Johnston.

While there are many options for electronic community outreach — through smartphone apps that poll stakeholders on the merits of a project or policy, for instance — many departments have not adopted those methods yet or will have to work hard to make them as useful as traditional public meetings. 

“There’s nothing better than doing it in person, obviously,” said Browne. “But we’re looking to figure out ways the planning process can continue on to be really authentic and engaging without having large community meetings.”

Moreover, some regulations require public meetings and, in many cases, hard-copy noticing of stakeholders. 

Browne is confident that planning departments will recognize the crucial role they may play once the virus crisis subsides, especially if Californians awake to an even more severe affordability crisis. 

Regardless of logistical challenges, Browne is confident that planners will maintain sight of and gain motivation from their missions, especially in light of the statewide housing crisis that has commanded planners’ attention for so many years.

“I think local governments are doing everything they can to facilitate housing in their communities,” said Browne. “I think they are still streamlining permitting processes. They're working with developers. They’re working with their communities. I think that process is going to continue on relatively untouched.”

Contacts & Resources

Executive Order N-25-20 (“Stay at Home” / Brown Act Modifications)

Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers

Karalee Browne, Executive Director, Institute for Local Government,

Erik de Kok, Senior Planning Advisor, Governor's Office of Planning and Research,

Julia Lave Johnston, President, California Chapter of the American Planning Association,

Christopher Koontz, Planning Manager, City of Long Beach,

Gregory Sandlund, Acting Planning Director, City of Sacramento,