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More On The Broken Public Review Process

Nov 6, 2009

Maybe California's public process for making land use decisions really is "old and sick," as new urbanism champion Andrés Duany said during a recent presentation in Sacramento.

Duany's criticism of the system and his praise of a jury-style process used in Perth, Australia, seems to have struck a chord. The piece I wrote about Duany's presentation drew quite a bit of readership on Planetizen, and I've been receiving emails ever since.

One of those emails came from David Prowler, who in the last 30 years has participated in San Francisco's planning process as a planning commissioner, developer, consultant and community organizer. He pointed me toward a piece he wrote in 2007 for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association newsletter with the headline "Form Foils Function." If you've been around the process for a while, you'll smile knowingly as you read Prowler's commentary and recommendations. True, San Francisco's process may be extreme, but plenty of other cities and counties have high levels of dysfunction.

Let me clear up one potential misconception before it gets started: No one advocates an authoritarian approach that cuts the public out of the process. To the contrary, there's interest in getting additional people involved, but in a much more educated and productive way.

The current process is driven largely by California Environmental Quality Act review. But the average citizen doesn't understand CEQA. Heck, people who have been in the business for 20 years don't understand it. Plus, while the typical CEQA analysis provides an excellent examination of the tree right in front of us, it misses the forest behind the tree (despite the cumulative impacts analysis). I'm not advocating scrapping CEQA, but I think we all know the CEQA process often leaves the public lost in the woods. So why do we let CEQA drive our public review process?

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– Paul Shigley

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