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"All you got to do," said architect Michael Levanthal, "is pay them about a thousand bucks and get insulted for the rest of your life." He was speaking of the Mendocino County Planning & Building Services Department, which is in charge of enforcing the Local Coastal Plan.
Levanthal and his partner Robert Schlosser were the architects for the Berlincourt Project, which was rejected by the Mendocino County planning department in August and which failed to win in a mid-November appeal to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.
Levanthal is bitter about the planning process, which he not only called subjective but "arbitrary and vindictive" as well. Said Levanthal of Gary Berrigan, supervisor for the planning department on the coast, "Gary has a lot of options in his discretion and, frankly, at this point he seems to have a great deal of power that people don't realize."
While it is not required when starting a project, an architect has the option of a preliminary conference with the planning department. In the case of the Berlincourt Project, no preliminary conference was requested by the architect. Said Levanthal, "On this one here we didn't go out on the site with anybody because, in fact, we thought it was a pretty clear case of what was allowed and what wasn't allowed. We felt justified in moving forward with the permit process . . . because we had what we thought was a pretty low-impact building."
He said that he and his partner were aware of the sensitivity of the site, though not the degree of it, he admitted. Because they were staying within the objective height limitations and were building on only a tenth of the allowable space, they did not anticipate problems.
While it's conceivable that Berlincourt could sue them on grounds of professional negligence--for not setting up a preliminary conference--Leventhal said he is not worried about that. He claimed the failure is not his fault and the Berlincourts are not vindictive.
But he and his client have been poorly treated by the planning department, he said.
First, he said they were told that they had to have a landscaping plan. So they brought in the former landscape consultant from Sea Ranch at "considerable cost." The plan was to hide the house from public view. But said Levanthal, "You can't have it all ways. You can't tell the client to move their house all over the parcel and then tell them to hide it." When the landscape architect came back with a plan to hide the house, the planning department "summarily dismissed it," according to Levanthal. He and his client were told it wouldn't work.
Planning supervisor Berrigan has said that of 112 applications that have been heard in public hearings since the Local Coastal Plan went into effect three years ago, only 1 application has been rejected. Modifications are required but nearly all application gets approved, he said. This would appear to counter the charge made by some that it's next to impossible to build in the coastal zone.
But Levanthal claimed that some clients never get to the stage that they are denied an application; instead, they give up somewhere along the way. "By the fact that you can make odious findings that the client can't or won't conform to," he said, "that turns it down also."
Levanthal charged that in the end it comes down to politics. "There are the 'haves and the have-nots,'" he said, "and a lot of that plays into this." He said that Berrigan has told him numerous times concerning other clients, "These people should not have this size house. Why do they need three bathrooms?"
All admit there are necessarily subjective decisions involved in the Local Coastal Plan. That is the way it is written. But Levanthal said, "That is really beyond subjective."
It also comes down to "private property rights versus the public good," said Levanthal. "We thought we had a pretty good balance on this," he said. Clients have rights too, he said.
It has been charged that the planning department is over-responsive to public opinion. But Levanthal went beyond this charge, saying the planning department is over-responsive to a particular type of public opinion. "If you're a friend of Gary's, you're likely to get the different treatment. Or if you're sympathetic to whatever particular cause he seems to be espousing at the time, then he's sympathetic." Levanthal said he has run projects of a social nature by Berrigan without any trouble. But he said that Berrigan sees himself as the "guardian of the public view. He sees that as his own role."
And for that Levanthal faults Berrigan.
He said his client, Ted and Marjorie Berlincourt, have various options at this point, including removing their project from Berrigan's hands.
He accused Berrigan of taking advantage of the age of the Berlincourts, who are in their 70s. "Gary knows what's going on here. How much longer do they want to fight this thing?" he asked.
The Berlincourts are consulting with Pacific Legal Services, a conservative legal group in Sacramento that supports private property rights, to see if they have a solid case against Mendocino county. They may decide to file legal charges, or they may resubmit a modified plan to the county, Levanthal said.
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