Community Editorial: Planning Commission Is Not for Politics

Lake Forest Planning Commission
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A little more than six months ago, Jolene Fuentes was appointed to the Planning Commission in Lake Forest amid controversy about her lack of background, experience and education, given the excellent qualifications of the applicants passed over in favor of her.

The controversy was exacerbated by the claim of then Mayor Scott Voigts that he had no idea why he cast the deciding vote for Fuentes, failing to mention the $1,000 contribution to his 2010 campaign from (now deceased) Tom Fuentes, the Republican bigwig and husband of Jolene.

In the intervening months, Fuentes’ record of attendance has been poor, and that’s on a commission that already cancels more than 20% of its  meetings.

Fuentes has made few, if any, constructive contributions to the proceedings on the Planning Commission.

In the light of all evidence to the contrary, she steadfastly maintains that the commission is an offshoot of the City Council and can do nothing that the staff or the council do not authorize her to do. She extended this philosophy recently to say “what happens on the street today is not for this commission” but rather the domain of the council. Hence, she was opposed to the commission trying to address existing parking problems in Lake Forest.

At that same meeting, Fuentes demonstrated her skills.

The issue on the table was the number of spaces that should be required for guest parking for new multi-family projects. The current standard is 0.2 spaces per unit (i.e., for every 100 multifamily units, there should be 20 guest spaces), but the city has found that overflow parking from multifamily units bleeds into adjacent neighborhoods, robbing the locals of their on-street parking spots. To date, there are five neighborhoods where the city has imposed “permit parking” to stop this overflow, and the idea of increasing guest space requirements as an antidote was being considered.

The staff surveyed all Orange County cities and found that the average was 0.44 spaces, which was more than twice as high as Lake Forest (i.e., for every 100 multi-family units, there should be 44 guest spaces instead of 20 now required).

Staff recommended the Planning Commission adopt a standard of 0.5, although they did no research to determine whether or not cities with higher requirements had fewer problems. Intuitively you’d think this must be the case, but as with much of life, it ain’t necessarily so. For example, right now one neighborhood is requesting permit parking not because there are too few guest spots in the adjoining multi-family project but because the managers there started charging for guest spaces, driving residents into the adjoining neighborhood. Around El Toro High School, permit parking was a function of overflow parking from the school, not from multi-family. Bottom line: The number of guest spaces and overflow parking may not be so directly related.

Many of the commissioners asked that the staff’s recommendation to increase the requirement from 0.2 to 0.5 be accompanied by some data to support the decision. After all, such a major change would add significantly to the costs of development, reducing the available space for building income-producing homes to parking spots. These costs in turn would be passed on to consumers and add to the costs of living in Lake Forest. So the decision was not to be made lightly, because it had dramatic implications for future development.

During the public comment section, urban planner (and former applicant for a position on the PC) Robert DeAlmeida gave an interesting and informative talk about the problem along with some trends in demographics which might impact the situation. Unfortunately DeAlmeida was limited to 3 minutes, but I speak for everyone when I say we wish he had much more time. DeAlmeida said that given his background, training and especially his years of experience (all of which Fuentes lacks), he thought 0.4 was a better figure than the 0.5 recommended by the staff.

In opposition to her colleagues, Fuentes wasn’t interested in any data or expert opinion. She was prepared to make her decision, and she favored “.05” rather than “.04.” Bear in mind, Fuentes was talking about .04 and .05 not 0.4 and 0.5. The differences here are enormous, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that while she doesn’t know the difference between 0.4 and .04, she wasn’t proposing that we seriously reduce our requirements for 40 guest spaces to a mere 4. She stuck with .5 (or .05 as she called it). That’s the number she liked because it was easy for her to do the math using 0.5 and she’d have difficulties using 0.4.

Besides, she argued, there’s little difference between 0.4 and 0.5. Apparently her limited math skills didn’t allow her to realize that the difference between 0.4 and 0.5 is 25%, which is a lot under these circumstances. Applied to a project with 200 units, a difference of 0.4 versus 0.5 in the requirement for guest parking spaces means the difference between 80 and 100 spaces, and the amount of space taken up by the 20 additional parking spaces is the equivalent of 4 or 5 homes. IOW, a difference of 0.1 on a base of 0.4 can result in millions of dollars of less income for a developer, but to Fuentes’ mind, the differences are small. That’s what happens when you have no background in planning and are faced with making decisions on a planning commission.

The newest commissioner, Tom Ludden, made some excellent contributions to the discussion, the most important of which was that every project was going to be unique, so a range of options would probably be the best solution. If a project had certain characteristics, it might be awarded a 0.3 requirement, while a different project in a different neighborhood might get a 0.5.

Fuentes didn’t like that idea either. Having a variable standard would be confusing, just like 0.4 would be difficult to measure; just having some data to help make a decision would only make it more difficult to make a decision. All those numbers! All that information!

In the end, the commission decided that more data was needed, and I suspect that they will also adopt Mr. Ludden’s idea of a variable usage requirement (with a defined maximum and minimum), based on the unique characteristics of a given project.

Subsequently I spoke with one of the commissioners, and I asked whether or not Ms. Fuentes had ever made a positive contribution.

He demurred, deferred and then deflected. (Let’s call him Mr. D, since he must remain anonymous.) Mr. D finally said he couldn’t recall. Then I asked if there was anything Fuentes said during the most recent session that wasn’t incorrect or badly advised. He demurred, deferred and then deflected but ultimately said that he agreed with nothing she said that evening.

During the public comment section, another former applicant for the commission position now occupied by Fuentes — Steve Carlson — also made some informative comments, and it was obvious that there were two talented people in the audience who had far more to offer the Planning Commission and the city than Fuentes had. My turn to speak came up next, and I suggested that given the enormous number and complexity of issues and the obvious talents on display, the commission might benefit from a friendlier environment in which the Planning Commission could utilize the knowledge of our citizenry. Several commissioners were positive about the idea, but Fuentes, once more, did not want to be confused. If neither math nor data nor flexibility should be allowed to muddy the waters, why would she want to listen to the opinions of experts in these areas?

Why would a woman want to be on a Planning Commission when she has no background, training or education in planning, when she believes that the only planning she can do is what is put before her and when she believes the palpable existing problems resulting for poor or outdated planning should not be addressed by the Planning Commission she sits on. And why miss so many meetings? And with such limited abilities? The answer may be that Fuentes is not really interested in the Planning Commission; her eyes are on the council.

There’s nothing wrong with running for the council. I’ve done it myself. Several times. And there’s nothing wrong with running for the council while sitting on the Planning Commission. Several people have done it, at least one of whom was successful. What’s upsetting in the case of Fuentes is the potential harm that she can do while she sits somewhere she apparently doesn’t want to be. Even more telling, by taking a seat on the Planning Commission, she is depriving the city of the wisdom of people far more experienced and educated than she is.

If Ms. Fuentes really wants to be of service to the city, she should resign from the Planning Commission and make way for one of a dozen more qualified people who have already applied.

This would strengthen the commission at a time when it needs strengthening. Then she can campaign for a seat on the City Council without embarrassment and without the history of her poor service on the panel.

She is certainly more qualified to run than any of the people now sitting on the council were when they decided to run, so perhaps she’d do a good job on the council.

But it’s clear that Fuentes does not belong on the Planning Commission.

Dr. Jim Gardner is a Lake Forest resident and serves on the Voice of OC Community Editorial Board.

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