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On The Planning Commission, April 9, 2013

transparent governmentJust a couple of items on the Tustin City Planning Commission agenda this week. One of them, however, could engender quite a bit of discussion. That is, unless the commissioners choose to, once again, violate the Brown Act (with the city attorney’s blessing, of course). More on that later.

First up is a Public Hearing for a Conditional Use Permit to use an existing warehouse as a commercial gym. Spectrum Fitness is planning a small, personal trainer type facility in a warehouse area of the city. The proposed use is a gym catering to “small group high intensity workouts”. The facility would be open early morning until mid-evening. The area, located on Chambers Road, west of the freeway near Tustin Ranch Road, is rife with warehouse and manufacturing facilities and noise should not be a problem. The applicant expects 16 attendees per class and classes run about an hour at a time. the staff report assures the Planning Commission of adequate parking and required facilities to accommodate the gym. According to the report, the project is exempt from CEQA. It looks like a good fit for the community. Let’s hope the folks on the Planning Commission think so as well.

The second item is also a Public Hearing on Ordinance 1429, Zoning Code Update. This is the same item on the February 26th agenda and I still have the same concerns regarding the minor text amendments “that would incorporate policy practice into the Zoning Code.” The cited example was the requirements in policy for guest quarters to have a deed restriction recorded. Again, the lack of transparency is appalling but not surprising for this bunch. Apparently, I was not the only one to express concern as Chad Ortlieb submitted a letter of concern at the March 12th meeting. That meeting also generated discussion among the commissioners including Jeff Thompson and Fred Moore, who stated emphatically the comments and concerns raised by Ortlieb be thoroughly reviewed and considered even though the comment period had closed. Moore apparently took issue with the staff splitting hairs on the comment period closing a scant couple of hours before Ortlieb got his letter in.

Ortlieb, who is a former city planner with Tustin and currently works for the city of Orange, has expressed concern over the city’s handling of the Wilcox debacle. He has been a more vocal opponent of the plans to turn the historic manor into a three ring circus for the benefit of outside non-profit organizations who have little stake in how the planned commercialization would affect the Old Town neighborhood. In his letter to the city, he accuses the Planning Commission of violating the Brown Act in not allowing the proposal to be fully discussed in a public hearing as he was cut off when attempting to speak at the February 26th meeting.

The staff report includes an almost line by line response to Ortlieb’s allegations.  One of those is the city attorney’s response to the alleged Brown Act violation. The city attorney defends the commissioner’s actions by saying they have a right to place reasonable regulation for each speaker (we’ll note that is not each individual, but all speakers in general – something Ortlieb pointed out). Kendig’s explanation drones on into how the courts have upheld these regulations and then says, emphatically, there was no Brown Act violation. Of course, the only trouble with this is whether the spirit of the law or the letter of the law was violated. So much for open and accessible government. But, then, we know Kendig has no problem with the public being involved with the legislative process – as long as it doesn’t interfere with people who run the show.

Oh, and lest you think the city is not planning on destroying Old Town, page 4 of their response indicates they have already made up their mind:

Wilcox Manor applicants requested a CUP for outdoor event uses. They did so under a special provision and because the site is within the Cultural Resource (CR) District and Single Family Residential (R`) District…. the Tustin City Council may consider a proposed non-listed use of a property within the CR District when the use supports the purposes of the CR District… The Planning Commission recommended approval of the requested use to the City Council with conditions.

Uh, huh. Also, with the whole-hearted approval of Community Services Director, Elizabeth Binsack, who’s department has gone out of their way to appease the owners of the Wilcox. That, presumably, is in support of the majority faction of the city council, all of whom have received direct and indirect support by use of the facilities for political fundraising.

So, let’s see how the commissioners handle the issues and whether they will pass the ordinance with the unsubstantial amendments made by city staff. I should note that most of Ortlieb’s concerns have been blown off in the latest staff response. It remains to be seen whether Thompson’s and Moore’s concerns were genuine or just whitewash for the public. I see the paintbrush coming out.

Who Is That Guy?

With the resignation of Chuck Puckett from the Tustin Planning Commission, the city council has been left with the task of selecting a new candidate for the position.  As you know, Puckett left the Chair of the planning commission to run for city council. The city then advertised the open position which the council may choose to fill tonight.

Of the two candidates who filed papers, one was disqualified for not meeting residency requirements. That left only one qualified candidate. He is Wisam (Sam) Altowaiji and he is an insider. In fact, he is a Public Works Manager working under Doug Stack. Altowaiji has a civil engineer background, as does current Planning Commissioner Jeff Thompson, and has worked for the city for the past 25 years. His wife is a real estate broker in town and they live and own property here in Tustin. Altowaiji states he has worked for the city for 25 years and, while planning to retire at the end of October, would like to “continue to serve/contribute to and share” his knowledge.

Never mind the pool of applicants should not be limited to one or two, there are huge potential conflicts of interest for Altowaiji. He will be an immediate past employee of the city, from their public works department. By his own admission, he is familiar with what the city staffers (read Jerry and Elizabeth’s) “vision” is for the city. While not a legal conflict of interest here, there is an ethical issue. Will he just stroll in and speak with whom he chooses, conducting behind the scenes meetings out of view of the public? There is little to prevent that from happening.

He and his wife own property here. A quick records search revealed several deeds recorded in his name. Owning a personal residence is one thing but owning businesses or rental properties within the city could also pose a problem. And, while these conflicts could be quickly remedied by an abstention on a vote, the question would remain that, with his wife being a real estate broker, how many of her clients would benefit from insider information he could provide.

The city council has several options at this point. First, they can proceed with an “interview” and appoint Altowaiji to the position. The outward appearance of this appointment would be that Altowaiji, supposedly having his finger on the pulse of the city, would be under the thumb of The Gang of Three. Altowaiji is filling an unexpired term that ends in 2014. The new city council could recall him before that but it’s doubtful that would happen without cause.

A second option for the city council would be to extend the deadlline for applicants, advertise more broadly and hope they get a larger pool of qualified applicants to choose from.

The third option would be to postpone appointment of a new commissioner until the new council is seated. This would allow the new council, whoever they may be, to have the candidate of their choice appointed to the position rather than a leftover lame-duck appointee from the Amante era. The commission would continue to run with four commissioners which, based on their usual unanimous voting scheme, would not hinder their ability to conduct city business. This option is our preference and should be the preference for a city that touts its transparency.

The Special City Council meeting will be held at 4:30 pm before the Closed Session convenes. As most residents who attend city council meetings are not available until later, the council will be free to do whatever is in their hearts. Let’s just hope they do the right thing.

On the Planning Commission Agenda, July 24, 2012

If you are planning to attend the Tustin Planning Commission meeting this Tuesday, you may want to have someone keep the car running. By the looks of the short agenda, you probably won’t be there long. That is, unless you are one of the residents or businesses along First Street. Then, you may wish to read the Agenda Report on the First Street Specific Plan  and attend the meeting. The plan has not been updated since 1985 and Elizabeth Binsack’s staff are recommending a facelift. It has always been the intention of the city to eventually eliminate the residential uses along First Street and create a neighborhood commercial zone. Of course, that has not happened and, by the looks of it, probably won’t in our lifetime.

Over the years, the original plan has served well to keep the status quo. So, apparently, the update would be to eliminate earlier identified “expansion areas” of commercial activity into residential areas and fix zoning issues that cause confusion. These seemingly minor incursions, as noted by the draft, would be met with strong opposition from residents in the area anyway.

In any case, Binsack’s staff have created, what appears at first glance to be, an excellent update to the First Street Specific Plan that actually maintains the neighborly atmosphere of the street and will allow the continuation of small businesses that have become a fixture along that lane. The only issue we might take with the Plan is the consistent reference that First Street is no  longer a major thoroughfare. While Irvine Boulevard may have higher density traffic, due to the easy access to the freeway, First Street continues to be a vital thoroughfare between Tustin and Santa Ana, with similar zoning and activity in both cities.

Now, if we could just get Newport Avenue put through.

So, all of this brings us to the burning question: Why are we having a meeting of the planning commission? They cancelled the last meeting due to lack of agenda items. This agenda has three items, none of which require immediate action. So, why are we wasting staff resources and taxpayer money? Did the commissioners miss having dinner together? Does Jeff Thompson’s kids need a new pair of shoes (those DC Universe Converse aren’t cheap)?

Once thing is for sure. Commissioner Chuck Puckett has pulled papers to run for the Tustin City Council. Section 1305 of the Tustin City Code states:


a. Non-Eligibility of Candidate to Serve as Commissioner

No person shall be appointed to serve or to continue to serve as a member of any commission of the City on whose behalf there has been filed nomination papers for the office of City Councilman and the election therefor is pending.

b. Resignation of Commissioner Council Candidate

Any member of any commission of the City on whose behalf there has been filed nomination papers for the office of City Councilman shall immediately resign from his position as commissioner. In the event such resignation is not filed by said commissioner, his appointment shall be terminated as of the date of filing of nomination papers.

Now would be a good time, Chuck. Although you could conceivably continue until the final filing date in August, resigning at this meeting will allow Jerry…, uh, John…, I mean, the city council…,  to appoint a new member (who will also consistently pander to the business community) to the Commission and allow you more time to locate a restaurant that still has lingerie shows. Hopefully, you can find one in Tustin, so you can live by our slogan.

On the Planning Commission Agenda, June 12, 2012

Only a couple of items to note on the Tuesday Tustin Planning Commission agenda.

First up is the planned new construction we had heard about on Main St. This is where the old Tustin Auto Parts used to be until they suddenly closed shop. It has been vacant ever since. The existing building is a one story brick, painted white, built in 1946. The adjoining lot was used for parking and to store the previous owner’s historical military vehicles.

The new building, according to the Agenda Report, would combine the two lots and would be three stories. Ground level would be a restaurant and the second story would be business offices. The third story would be two residential lofts. Because the building is mixed use, it is required to go before the Planning Commission for a conditional use permit. The staff report is generally favorable to the construction.

It is interesting to note that there appears to be no requirement for ground cleanup of the property as there was with the Del Rio construction on El Camino Real. That property went through several iterations with Binsack’s department because of the cleanup issues from the old Riteway Dry Cleaners. Apparently, she doesn’t consider that oil, gas and other hazardous materials seeping into the ground from years of use as an automotive machine shop is sufficient reason to require testing of the soil. The only reason we bring it up is we believe everyone should be treated equally and feel that the Del Rio project was singled out due to personal reasons. Say it ain’t so, Elizabeth.

In any case the new building, to be built by Chris Miller of PMR Construction, is a welcome addition to the Old Town area. Orange County seems to be lacking in good, quality, non-chain restaurants and it is great that others see the potential in our town as a center for fine dining. The mixed use idea continues to be popular and we hope to see more of this in the future.

The other item on the Planning Commission agenda is an appeal of a business license application for OC Medical Spa. This business was the subject of a sting operation by the Tustin Police Department back in May which resulted in an arrest for prostitution. Of course, the manager denied she had any knowledge of illegal activity and stated that she had a “zero tolerance” policy in place.

Normally, we would say that an owner should be given an opportunity to make amends and correct problems with their business. In this case, the owner apparently continued to operate the business without a license and in violation of several Tustin ordinances. Thanks to the vigilance of the police department, we should have one less problem to deal with on this end of Tustin.

Short and sweet. That is how the agenda appears to be. It would be a lot shorter if the Planning Commission did not think so highly of itself that it has to recognize and award locals. It appears they will be doing just that at the beginning of the meeting when they present certificates to several citizens for obtaining their Masters Degree. This is something that should come under the purview of the City Council, not the Planning Commission.