Lately, any murmurs of eliminating public agencies make people understandably jumpy. Wouldn't it be nice if not all land use institutions come crashing down at all once? So it's no wonder that the possible axing of the City of Rancho Cordova's Planning Commission has raised concerns.
In fact, the proposed "elimination," on which the City Council is soon expected to vote, is not even an elimination in the permanent sense. It would, according to both commissioners and city officials, be a temporary disbanding in response to a painfully slow real estate market. It is, city officials insist, a move for streamlining the decision-making process and not necessarily a blow to democracy and planning expertise.
"The general feeling was efficiency," said City Manager Ted Gaebler. He noted that state law requires that "a city will have a planning function; it does not necessarily have a planning commission."
There was a time not long ago, in the short history of Rancho Cordova, that the Planning Commission was vitally necessary. Sitting roughly in Sacramento's lap, Rancho Cordova famously remained unincorporated as boom and bust at neighboring aerospace firms strained the area and its workforce. Since incorporating in 2002, it has grown to 62,000 residents, booming alongside the capital's other hypertrophic suburbs.
The recession, however, has been particularly unkind to Rancho Cordova.
Although up to 34,000 units remain in the development pipeline, a scant number of them are expected to go forward in the foreseeable future. At the same time, Gaebler said that the City Council's docket is fairly light, thus freeing up council members to focus on development at the same level of detail that the Planning Commission would have. Ray Savorn, current chair of the Planning Commission, added that in a city defined by growth, many council members are well versed in land use.
"The City Council is not really bogged down as it used to be," said Savorn. "They can take this on their plate at this time and handle it judiciously."
Gaebler said that the move is not necessarily intended to spur economic development. Though developers might perceive the process as being easier, and friendlier to development, with the elimination of a step in the approvals process, he insisted that the City Council would not necessarily address projects any differently than the Planning Commission would have.
Gaebler said that the City Council would not want to shoulder this burden permanently.
"I think they anticipate, if and when we get out of this downturn, that the workload for the Planning Commission, and therefore the council, would pick up," said Gaebler. "They would reconsider reconstituting the planning Commission."
The city ordinance suspending the Planning Commission is expected to include a clause stating that the City Council can reconstitute it without passing a brand-new ordinance.
While the planning commission is on hiatus, residents of Rancho Cordova can ponder what sort of democracy they want to have. Planning Commissions, in their own small way, offer an object lesson in the merits of expertise versus those of direct democracy. Acting as an advisor to the City Council, a planning commission draws elected officials that much further away from the decisions they make. (In the case of the City of Los Angeles, the Planning Commission sits above Area Planning Commissions, thus adding yet another step to the process.)
Do residents trust appointed "experts" to decide on the merits of development proposals, or would they prefer that their elected officials make accountable, transparent decisions? It's likely that not enough dirt is going to move in Rancho Cordova for its residents to answer that question. But it's one that everyone should ask, recession or no.
Even as it goes on extended hiatus, Savorn insists that the expertise will not disappear.
"I would like to think that…all of us would be more than willing to step and be another set of eyes" if the City Council needed advice, said Savorn. "I think it would still serve a purpose for us to be an ad hoc planning commission."