The city of Port Hueneme is on the verge of becoming the first local government in California to dissolve its Planning Commission because it is deemed obsolete.
Surrounded on three sides by Oxnard and on the other by the sea, Port Hueneme has no bordering areas to annex and little vacant land within city limits left for new construction.
"The idea is to have less bureaucracy and more efficiency, and take advantage of the winding down of development," said City Manager Richard Velthoen, whose staff was authorized by the City Council to draft plans for the commission's dissolution as part of a revision of Port Hueneme's 14-year-old master plan.
"If this were a growth city, there would be no question the commission should stay intact," Velthoen said. "But the council could take on that workload."
Although eliminating the panel is permitted under state law, it is opposed by a majority of the city's five-member Planning Commission.
If the City Council is the only body ruling on projects, several members said, an invaluable vehicle for citizen input and debate will be lost.
"You need a cushion between the public and elected officials, who look at things differently than a planning commission," Commissioner Louis Vann said. "This would eliminate a good public forum. We're a valve that vents the heat."
National and state planning experts said dissolving the commission would place an unusual amount of power in the council's hands, hastening approvals for developers while limiting an avenue for public protest.
Though commissioners are appointed by the council, which also hears appeals of Planning Commission votes, they are more inclined to vote on a project's merits and not be swayed by its potential for generating tax revenues, said James Hecimovich, research manager for the American Planning Assn. in Chicago.
"That could become a politically loaded situation," Hecimovich said. "You won't have anyone outside the immediate political arena taking a look at things."
Incorporated in 1948, the 4.5-square-mile city is nearly half taken up by the U.S. Naval Construction Battalion Center and the Port of Hueneme's harbor-front terminal area.
Two major new developments are under way in the beach district--a 450-unit condominium-and-office complex at the harbor mouth, and a 143-space, oceanfront recreation-vehicle park near Hueneme Pier. Other than that, Velthoen said, the only sizable piece of open land left for development is a four-acre commercial tract near Victoria Avenue and Channel Islands Boulevard.
Most construction in recent years has been "infill" redevelopment projects, in which older buildings are demolished and higher density ones, such as small townhouse and condominium projects, are built in their place.
Until now, only two local governments in California have ever dissolved their planning commissions, according to the governor's office on planning and research. Neither were abandoned because they were considered outmoded.
Cypress, a city of 42,000 in northern Orange County, abolished its Planning Commission along with several other boards in 1979 to save money after the passage of Proposition 13. The City Council handles hearings on all development proposals that require zoning or conditional-use permits.
The Kern County Board of Supervisors did away with the county's Planning Commission in the early 1980s, primarily for political reasons, said Dave Rickels, the county's principal planner.
The commission was too slow in approving projects for the supervisors' tastes and rejected some key developments that the supervisors supported, Rickels said.
The number of applications heard by the Port Hueneme commission has fallen off in recent years, primarily because open land is increasingly scarce.
The commission canceled its monthly meeting at least three times in the past year and held over the few minor items on its agenda for the following month.
"We don't have as much work to do by a long shot," said Commissioner Don Jennings, a 25-year veteran of the panel who declined to comment on whether the body should be abolished.
During the last year, about 40% of the proposed projects were reviewed jointly by the commission and the City Council, which also serves as the redevelopment agency board. Those projects were within the beach area that falls within a 30-year-old redevelopment district.
In those cases, council members left the room as the Planning Commission voted on each project, then returned as the redevelopment board to cast the final vote.
Community Development Director Thomas Figg said the Planning Commission's role is merely being shifted to the council to avoid such duplication of effort.
"We still feel it's important to maintain a handle on development," Figg said. "It's just a matter of how we discharge those responsibilities."
The council first considered abolishing the Planning Commission five years ago as a cost-saving measure. Ultimately, the council dissolved its citizens advisory committee, but decided to spare the Planning Commission.
"They were torn by the issue, notwithstanding what the facts were telling them," Figg said. "How many cities are there in California where the boundaries are fixed, and the development potential is largely redevelopment?"
Planning experts were nonetheless skeptical.
"The truth is, no city is ever built out, especially beach towns," said William Fulton of Ventura, a planning newsletter publisher. "There's nothing to stop someone from coming in, buying up a piece of land and doing a high-density redevelopment."
The planning commissioners are not paid, so the savings to the city would be minimal, estimated at $2,700 in annual staff and conference costs. Velthoen said those savings would still be helpful for a city that, with scant room for growth, faces an uncertain financial future.
"If we want efficiency and economy in our government, let's save every penny we can," Velthoen said.
John Grether, president of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., concurred: "We certainly commend any government organization that tries to reduce the bureaucratic maze and cuts costs in the process."
The council already has endorsed merging the Planning Commission into a 25-member citizens advisory panel formed to update the city's General Plan. Figg said those committee appointments should be made by February.
The council authorized Figg last week to find a consultant to do a $266,000 study on revising the plan. Barring a change of heart by the council, once the master plan is approved, the advisory panel--and the Planning Commission contained within--would be dissolved.