Supervisors direct review of options to streamline discretionary permits

Courtesy Illustration.

Discretionary permits are currently subject to public review. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors would like to streamline the permit process without eliminating the public’s right to comment.

A 5-0 Board of Supervisors vote on July 24 directed the county’s Chief Administrative Officer to return within 180 days with recommendations for implementing a self-certification process for engineers, implementing permit and California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) evaluation requirements, increasing final engineering flexibility, increasing opportunities to expand checklist exemptions for certain permit processes, implementing a project issue resolution process, and increasing coordination and accountability between departments.

The motion also included the formation of a working group of industry members and other stakeholders.

“There are ways we can move this process along further,” said Supervisor Jim Desmond.

Ministerial permits are for projects which are considered “by right”; the facilities are not truly by right but are contingent upon compliance with a checklist. Such permits include building permits, electrical permits, and well water permits. Ministerial permits are exempt from CEQA and are for the most part flat fee permits which can be processed relatively quickly.

Discretionary permits are subject to CEQA. Any rezone, general plan amendment, or specific plan amendment is a discretionary action which must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. The county’s Planning Commission has the authority to approve subdivision maps and Major Use Permit requests, although the decision may be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. A Minor Use Permit or a design review permit such as a site plan would also undergo the discretionary process.

The costs of the permit process are added to the cost of a house or condominium when it is sold.

“Housing affordability is a major problem that’s facing our region,” Desmond said. “We can do our part to make housing more affordable.”

The working group received the support of the Building Industry Association of San Diego.

“We look forward to a good professional collaborative process on this,” said BIA vice president for government affairs Matt Adams.

“Talk doesn’t get you housing. Production gets you housing,” Adams said.  “This is an important exercise, one which should be done regularly.”

Adams noted that in addition to regulatory costs housing prices and production are affected by the cost of land, the availability of land, and the cost of materials.

“There are so many things that are part of the land use process,” he said.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob noted that the county has approved housing units which have not yet been built.

“It’s the economic conditions. We can only do so much,” she said. “The question then is what is the impediment that is preventing them from being built?”

The approval of a housing project includes the certification of an Environmental Impact Report, Negative Declaration, or Mitigated Negative Declaration, but challenges to the CEQA certification are affecting approximately 8,000 housing units in the county.

“Things change in the industry.  Conditions and situations change,” said Supervisor Kristin Gaspar. “Environmental attorneys are laughing their whole way to the bank. We have a lot of units that are tied up in litigation.”

The project issue resolution component of the potential improvements would investigate the feasibility of implementing a project resolution process so that issues can be resolved faster.  If an applicant requests a project issue resolution meeting both sides are heard, and a designated executive-level arbitrator provides a final determination.

The investigation of permit and CEQA evaluation requirements would allow technical analysis to answer questions pertaining to CEQA while separating the construction-level detail which would not be required until final engineering.

If unforeseen modifications are required during the final engineering due to regulatory processes and a finding of substantial conformance cannot be made the project currently must return to the discretionary process. The working group including county staff will determine whether additional flexibility to revise a project without subsequent discretionary review can occur.

Although licensed professional engineers must prepare technical analyses, the studies are submitted for peer review. The potential improvements would eliminate the peer review.

The potential increased checklist exemptions would require findings to be met for those exemptions, and some of the permits might be shifted from the discretionary to the ministerial process.

Increased coordination between departments would provide timelier and more complete project review.