• Public Empowerment •
BY ANNE SOBLE
The Malibu City Council this week helped guarantee public access to the after-the-fact policymaking process and provide a more level playing field between applicants and appellants, who often have greatly disparate resources at their disposal in order to try to achieve their objectives.
Although it might always seem preferable for public concerns about planning commission actions to be aired in the early stages of the development process, that is not always practicable, especially with projects that are subject to multiple hearings over long periods of time and go through numerous permutations before obtaining final approval.
Local planning processes are not robotic procedures; they take twists and turns in keeping with the complexity of the issues involved. Sometimes, the full impact of a proposal is not evident until it has been approved in entirety and the specifics disseminated in the media and official notices that potential public concerns about scope and magnitude become evident. At that point, the only citizen recourse for addressing those concerns is appeal.
The City of Malibu had an appeal-filing fee of 25 percent of the original entitlement fees, or $1000, whichever was greater. After staff did a community comparison, it was determined that local costs were at the high end of the spectrum. Higher fees would cover administrative costs and discourage nuisance or frivolous appeals, but they could also have a chilling effect on public-interest appeals, especially by an individual or small citizens group against a corporate behemoth.
Developers and permit expediters favor higher fees as they might be expected to reduce the number of appellants. Critics of the public appeal process maintain that appeals stall or delay projects, but that's exactly what appeals are supposed to do. If the public cannot prevent ground from being broken, or construction started, before all of its concerns have been addressed, community oversight is meaningless.
The council decision to follow the staff recommended flat fee of $500 also should keep the appeal process "closer to home" in Malibu because there will be less incentive to appeal directly to the more inconvenient California Coastal Commission because there is no charge to do so.
If having the option to appeal means the public believes it is not being shut out of the decision-making process once an approval has been granted, the end result is a sense of empowerment.
The appeal process also serves as a check on the officials making the kinds of decisions that can have a major impact on a community. No action can be undertaken as if there isn't a way to counteract approvals that were ill thought out, based on incomplete information, or involved backroom deals. The appeal process helps to put policymaking on its best behavior.