Poway council splits on ending hillside home reviews
By Steve Dreyer
Poway City Council members voted 3-2 Tuesday night to scrap a 28-year-old policy requiring council review of any plans to build single-family homes on hillside ridge lines.
Instead, final authority on plans will rest with the city planning staff.
The vote followed 25 minutes of public comments, both in favor and opposed to the idea, and extensive council debate that was eventually cut off by Mayor Don Higginson, who called for the vote.
If someone wants to build a new home in Poway, or an addition of over 750 square feet, a Minor Development Review Application (MDRA) must be processed. While all other MDRAs are handled administratively, the 1985 city resolution requires those for properties within the “hillside/ridge line overlay area” be approved by the council.
The idea to “streamline” the application process was advanced by Deputy Mayor John Mullin. He, Higginson and new Councilman Steve Vaus voted to rescind a 1985 policy while Councilmen Dave Grosch and Jim Cunningham vocally opposed doing so.
In Mullin’s view, eliminating having the council pass final judgment on new single-family hillside homes saves the applicant time (4-6 weeks) and money (between $424 and $759.) City staff hours spent preparing a presentation to thxe council can be devoted to other matters, he said.
Removing the council from the approval process in no way changes the rules that applicants must follow, Mullin stressed. Staff does a good job making sure the rules are followed, he said, evidenced by the fact that all 19 applications reviewed by the council over the past seven years have been routinely approved.
“The downsides are minimal,” Mullin said of the proposed change.
Grosch and Cunningham took the position that removing hillside home approvals from council approval makes the process less transparent to the public.
Grosch said that if the approval process needs to be speeded up, that might be accomplished at its beginning, not at the final stage of council review.
Cunningham called the proposed policy change “a paradigm shift for the city” affecting “the ability of citizens to communicate with the council on important issues.”
Mullin replied that Poway residents were involved in the development of standards for hillside ridge line homes.
Vaus said that in his 20 years in Poway he had not heard anyone say that getting a project through the city planning department was easy, leading him to think that staff will do a good job in enforcing the rules.
During public comments, residents Nick Stavros, Peter DeHoff, Dee Fleischman, and Jack Tripp opposed removing the council from the approval process. Supporting the change were home builders Scott Sandstrom, Roger Mohling and John Fitch, a former assistant city manager who often represents building industry interests.
Stavros said the change is unnecessary and is intended to help “a tiny minority save time, money and hassle.” Meanwhile, the appearance of homes along with the city’s hillside ridge lines impacts everyone in town, he said.
Trying to move the council discussion forward, Higginson suggested that Mullin’s idea be tried for 24 months, then be reviewed. Cunningham pushed back on the idea, saying it would be impossible for the council to undo a bad decision made by the planning staff.
Moments later the mayor abruptly stopped further discussion and called for the vote.
The change affects only new individual single-family homes additions of more than 750 square feet. Subdivisions will still require council review and approval.
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