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Getting approval to build a house in the coastal zone can be a long and difficult process. For architects it is often frustrating and for property owners who want to build it can even be heart-breaking.
But according to Gary Berrigan, Planning and Building Services Supervisor for the Mendocino coast, one way to avoid the frustration and heart-break is a pre-application conference. "You can let us know what you're proposing, give us a little bit of information so that we can do some research and then sit down with you and tell you what some of the policies are."
That, in fact, was not done in the case of the Berlincourt project, which was denied by the planning department back in August and last week lost in an appeal to the County Board of Supervisors.
Said Michael Leventhal, one of the architects for the project, "We didn't go out on the site with anybody, because we thought it was a pretty clear case of what was allowed and what wasn't allowed. We felt justified moving forward with the permit process and dealing with the staff, because we had what we thought was a pretty low-impact building."
He admitted there was a problem but does not believe it is his fault. "It gets right back to the issue of private property versus the public good. We thought we had a pretty good balance on this."
Architect Michael Wike of Gualala, who was not involved with the Berlincourt project, said that public opinion is "very powerful" when it comes to the planning department. Objections to a project by just one or two neighbors can sway the decision, he said. There were many objections to the Berlincourt project.
But Berrigan downplayed the effect of public opinion: "Public input can raise issues that a staff person didn't think about." He said it happens frequently. But he said, "I don't know that negative public input means you're in trouble as an applicant or not."
It has also been charged that decisions are highly subjective when it comes to sensitive coastal property. Berrigan admitted that is so but said it's due to the way policy is written for those areas. "A lot of the actions that we take in the coastal zone require no discretion at all. You come in for a building permit, and that's it." But in those areas designated "highly scenic" it is another matter, he said. "In the coastal zone, all of the highly scenic policies are subjective."
He gave an example: "There is a policy that says that you have a height limit of one story--unless the increase in height would not have an adverse effect on public views. Well, that requires somebody to make a subjective decision. The policy itself is inherently subjective."
The planning department has been issuing coastal permits for 3 years under the Local Coastal Plan, which interprets the Coastal Zone Act. Of 112 applications subject to public hearings, only the Berlincourt application has been denied. One other--for a 17,000 square-foot house on Chapman Point near the town of Mendocino--would have been denied if it had not been withdrawn, said Berrigan. And of the 112 applications, there have been only 6 appeals to the County Board of Supervisors by those unhappy with approvals. Of those 6 appeals, only one had conditions modified by the Board.
Said Berrigan, "We know what the policies are, and I think that we are pretty careful in applying them. We also, when we do these things, have to consider that (for) any decision or action we make, we may be sitting there in front of the Board."
The way Berrigan sees it, it is human nature to "push the limits." And that is where the planning department comes in. It is the job of the planning department to hold the line on what or what cannot be done.
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