Municipal Appeal Fee Reduced to $500 after City Staff Comparisons
• Community Activists and Public Watchdogs Were Complaining that Current Fees Were Too High
BY BILL KOENEKER
The Malibu City Council this week unanimously agreed to reset the appeal fee to the staff recommended $500, after hearing from the public on the matter. Activists and others have complained the municipal fees for appealing a planning commission decision to the city council are too expensive and way out of line compared to other cities.
Others point out that when the matter deals with a coastal permit issue, quite often, the city council, because of a technicality, is simply bypassed on appealing the issue, which is taken to the California Coastal Commission because the state agency does not charge for appeals.
Permit expediter Marissa Coughlin said she had mixed concerns because she believes some appellants use the appeal process to stall projects.
"It is used as a delay tactic and it does delay things," she said.
Lucile Keller, speaking on behalf of the Malibu Township Council, said she was pleased the council was willing to reconsider the fee and cited the staff report commending its recommendation.
"My personal observation: If you are concerned about keeping the California Coastal Commission appeals here, you have to be competitive. But maybe you don't want to cut out the fee completely," she said.
Planning Commissioner John Mazza, who on several occasions had asked the city council to direct the staff to look into the matter because he said the current $1000 fee effectively shuts out opposition views, noted the high fee also has the effect of quieting the voice of the city council when appeals go straight to the Coastal Commission eliminating further local viewpoints.
Last year in October, the council did direct the staff to review the appeal fee and its effects on the local appeal process "specifically whether the current appeal fee discourages appellants to file appeals to the city and in turn encourages appellants to file appeals directly to the California Coastal Commission."
The planning staff recommended changing the appeal fee from the current 25 percent of the original entitlement fees "minimum $1000, whichever is greater," to a flat fee of $500.
Councilmember Jefferson Wagner said he reviewed in the staff report other cities and what they charge. "The $500 fee puts us about in the middle. It doesn't seem too complicated. The $500 fee seems reasonable," he said.
Councilmember Lou La Monte wanted to know how many appeals have been filed in the last five years and was told about 30 and that the majority of appeals were denied by the city council.
"I am inclined to support the $500 fee. We can come back in six months and see what it is costing," he added.
Councilmember John Sibert said he thought in most cases the city should recover full costs.
"That makes sense. But for the appeals, I'm inclined to support the $500 fee," he said.
Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich called for a motion, which was quickly seconded and unanimously approved.
Planners had offered several options for the council to choose from, including adopting a flat fee of $1000 "to ensure hard costs are recovered," to a flat administrative fee for low to no cost recovery of $385, which staff is recommending should be subject to the consumer price index, if it is adopted.
Other options were also offered, the council could consider adopting a two-tier appeal fee—for example $1000 for coastal permits and $500 for non-coastal permits.
The staff report prepared by senior administrative analyst Patricia Salazar points out that historically, the planning development application appeal fee has been set at levels that achieve only modest cost recovery in an effort to encourage public participation in the planning process and to keep a level playing field between applicants and appellants.
"Since 2002, the city council has modified the appeal fee multiple times in an attempt to recover costs related to the processing of appeals," wrote Salazar. "The appeal fee has changed from a per finding appeal fee, to a set appeal fee, to the current appeal fee which is a percentage of the original application fee (25 percent of the original planning entitlement fees; minimum $1000, whichever is greater)."
Salazar said the staff surveyed comparable jurisdictions and several themes were noted.
"There is a direct correlation between the appeal fee and the amount of appeals filed for coastal permits. Members of the public often prefer fixed fees because they provide a predictable cost. Agencies that charge higher appeal fees tend to have their systems to differentiate the type of project being appealed. A third of the agencies waive the appeal fee for coastal permits."
Jurisdictions such as the City of Carpenteria, City of Morro Bay and Ventura County waive the appeal fee for "appealable" coastal permits. For the City of Malibu, this may impact half of all coastal permits processed, according to Salazar.