Use permits are activities primarily at wineries (events, production and visitation quotas among others) loosely defined in the Zoning Code over which the county Supervisors have ultimate discretion in adjusting them as they see fit upon applicants' requests. On the face of it, one would think there is nothing wrong with that. This however, presupposes a fair and equitable government that enjoys the trust of the people.
The use permit process begins with the applicant spending thousands of dollars in preparing environmental impact reports and other studies for staff to review for a recommendation to the Planning Commission. The Planning Commission conducts public hearings attended by staff, county legal counsel and the public. Such hearings may extend over two, even three, sessions before the commission approves or denies them. Its decisions may be appealed to the Supervisors involving additional public hearings. The Supervisors' decisions can then be contested in court at enormous costs, as is recently the case with the Syar quarry expansion and the Walt Ranch development.
While the applicant pays for the cost of staff time, he or she does not pay for the long-term costs of staff benefits and pensions, nor for the costs of the county facilities such as utilities, equipment, maintenance and depreciation. Nor does the applicant pay for the tens of thousands in consultants' fees paid by the appellant; that overwhelmingly being the public. One must also consider that a proliferation in use permit applications necessitates ever-increasing numbers of staff. These enormous long-term costs are all borne by the public.
There are also unaccounted costs in lost productivity. The recent application by the Palmaz family to allow it to fly a personal-use helicopter from its property on Hagen Road, has already had three public hearings, each time attended by over 100 citizens, with a fourth scheduled. By the time appeal hearings are over, this use permit process will have cost the citizens between 3,500 and 4,000 hours of unaccounted for loss in productivity. Whether it is for one winery to increase its visitors or for a single person to use his property for the recreational activity of flying his helicopter, this system in terms of public expenditure and in human capital investment is grossly out of balance in favor of the applicant.
Equally, if not more important, are ethics issues arising when commissioners and supervisors have more and more discretionary power, which is what use permits give them.
The amounts of money spent on supervisors' election campaigns has mushroomed to obscene levels, primarily funded by wineries and other special interests certainly not motivated by charity but in the hope of gaining favorable outcomes to their use permit applications. The system is so grossly out of kilter that even wineries that for years have been violating their use permits, not only receive forgiveness but are rewarded with many times over their production and visitations.
When the Reverie Winery received its forgiveness last year, including for serious environmental violations, it was also rewarded with triple its production levels and tenfold its visitations. Before the ink had dried on its new use permit, it turned around and sold it within days after the supervisors added millions of value in scandalous rewards.
If you are the director of corporate development for a winery tour company that relies on good winery relations for access, as one of our commissioners is, or a supervisor voting for a large donor's use permit, would it not be fair for the public to question the independence of their vote?
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This is not a government that can be trusted - even in appearance - to make equitable and unbiased administration of the power it keeps giving to itself in the form of the use permit process?
There are measures that can be employed toward a solution.
First: For the government to regain credibility, any commissioners and supervisors who have a direct or proximate interest or have received substantial financial contributions from an industry or an individual seeking a use permit must recuse themselves from voting on them.
Second: A serious effort must be made to substantially tighten the Zoning Code - perhaps review it every five years - so that what is permitted and what is not, is clear. This will reduce the number of use permit applications, limiting the discretionary power of commissioners and supervisors. It will also reduce the cost in both monetary and human capital expended in the inefficient and unfair current system.
Finally, it will free up staff, commissioners and supervisors to allow them to devote their energy in addressing the fundamental issues the county is facing now and into the future.