Monday, February 7, 2010 | Most residents of Orange County's two largest cities have little say in how their neighborhoods are developed, concludes a new report by the Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, an Orange County-based public policy advocacy group.
Called "The Rubber Stamp Process," the report analyzed planning commission appointments, campaign contributions, planning commissioner financial disclosures and public hearings in both cities over the past decade and found that out-of-town developers and residents of affluent neighborhoods hold an overwhelming sway when it comes to developments in the urban cores of Anaheim and Santa Ana.
The report is specifically critical of Anaheim's Platinum Triangle development and Santa Ana's Station District. The report concludes that the planning process for both developments bulldozed over community concerns.
"Due to the structural bias in favor of developers, development projects move forward even when the public strongly disagrees with them. In Anaheim and Santa Ana, 87 new development projects were presented between 2005 and 2010. Of these, 21 were met with more community opposition than support, yet 20 of the 21, or 95%, were approved," concludes the report.
"As a result, major development projects are approved without job quality standards, affordable housing, parks, schools, adequate infrastructure and important community resources. Concerns about traffic, urban sprawl and incompatible land uses remain unaddressed," read the report.
OCCORD officials said they would officially present their findings to both city councils this week (Santa Ana on Monday and Anaheim on Tuesday) with the hopes that they can engage officials and craft a more inclusive planning process, one that produces healthy neighborhoods as opposed to more sales taxes for city general funds.
"The bias we observed goes beyond the actions of any single city, elected leader, or political party," said report co-author and OCCORD Policy Analyst Robert Nothoff. "It's about who decides what happens to our communities: Out-of-town developers or the people who live and work there."
"The solution is to give communities a real voice in the planning process," Nothoff said.
The most impactful way city officials could provide that voice, according to the study, would be to adopt the creation of wards, or districts, where council candidates, and planning commissioners, could have a closer tie to their respective neighborhoods.
OCCORD was founded in 2005 as a non-profit hybrid combining policy research and activism on housing issues. It is funded by the Irvine Foundation, the California Endowment and organized labor in Orange County.
Central points of the report include:
Where Planners Live Matters
The report found that most planning commissioners in both cities came overwhelmingly from one part of town.
The affluent area of Anahiem Hills, for example, represents about 20 percent of the city's population but nearly 60 percent of the planning commission's members were from that area.
In Santa Ana, the Floral Park neighborhood -- north of 17th Street -- only comprises 19 percent of the city's population but nearly 60 percent of the planning commission lives in that area.
In addition, OCCORD found that more than 70 percent of planning commissioners in Anaheim worked for development-connected businesses. In Santa Ana, it was 50 percent.
OCCORD analyzed campaign contributions in Anaheim and Santa Ana over the last decade and concluded that 70 percent of the more than $3 million contributed in both cities came from outside development interests.
They also found that 70 percent of campaign cash for both cities came in from outside of town, and was very closely connected to development interests.
The planning hearing process.
In both cities, OCCORD found that it's rare for a developer not to get a green light from planning commissioners. And without a more competitive process, communities don't get a chance to make projects more neighborhood-friendly, the report concludes.
OCCORD also concluded that the public should be brought in much earlier in the planning process. For example, neighborhood meetings could start when projects are first proposed, not just when the planning work is done, the report suggests.
City officials can work harder to bring neighborhoods into the process by increasing the number of residents who receive notice of a proposed development. Currently only those living within 300 feet of a proposed development receive notice.
When it comes to creating healthy, thriving neighborhoods, cities need to do more than just the bare minimum required by law, the report authors said. For example, they point to the city of San Jose, which expands notice requirements as a project's size - and impacts - increase.
The report suggests that city officials could form advisory commissions in neighborhoods that could advise officials on specific concerns when it comes to developments, early in the process.
Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development is largely funded by labor. Labor support represents less than 15 percent of the organization's budget.