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Farewell Architectural Review Committee, Goodbye Checks and Balances

On Dec. 10 the City Council voted 4-3 to eliminate the Architectural Review Committee.

I give kudos to the minority vote on Council (Vice Mayor Patty Mahan and Councilmembers Karen Hardy and Raj Chahal) for standing their ground and refusing to dismantle the ARC.  To the majority including Mayor Gillmor, it is disappointing you are taking away a method of “checks and balances”

The ARC is almost as old as the City Charter, established in 1960. It was described as: “composed of one council member and two planning commissioners,” and its purpose as “reviews new development projects to encourage orderly and harmonious appearance of structures and property, maintains property and improvement values and encourages the physical development as intended by the General Plan.”

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The ARC’s demise was launched by our city attorney a year ago, who alleged that the actions of the committee could put the City in legal jeopardy because City Council and Planning Commission members serving on the ARC would be voting multiple times on a project —denying applicants due process.

On this issue, as with others, the City Attorney continued his practice of presenting his personal opinion as professional legal advice, as if he was an elected Council Member.

The ARC is a subcommittee to Planning Commission and City Council, so this analysis by the City Attorney is like saying that other Council subcommittees that make recommendations could put Santa Clara in legal jeopardy because they, too, will be voting twice on the matters in front of the subcommittee. Santa Clara is no stranger to legal issues.

After hours of deliberation, the Planning Commission proposed a solution to this perceived problem — putting three Planning Commissioners on the ARC, and Council Members wouldn’t be involved in recommendations that they would be voting on. It would have given appeals to city council for the final say.

The Council and City Manager ignored the planning commission’s recommendation and public opinion and pushed forward with their plan to replace the ARC with a staff hearing with no oversight by residents.

The ARC’s role was to consider projects in light of neighborhood concerns and limit the conflicts.  Now balancing these important aesthetic concerns will be the job of staff members who are excellent in their jobs, but in many cases are not City residents. The committee members were answerable to the public, they live within the community and all that power should reside in those that are appointed or elected. This prevents biases, like a pro-development bias.

This new process puts more power in hands of developers. It seems like the development review process is being gutted to get quicker turnaround on approving projects by excluding neighborhood concerns. It is a streamlined process that ignores democratic process. These meetings will be more like internal staff meetings, instead of public meetings. They will not be televised, and you have to be there to cite concerns.

This comes on the heels of negative resident feedback on actions by the city council, planning commission and architectural review. The criticism from the community is a failure to give greater consideration to public feedback on development projects. Many residents rant that we refuse to go to subsequent meetings so that more time could be spent deliberating and stressing the pros and cons. Many felt that any government body shouldn’t automatically approve projects just because they’ve been found to be legal or to put it in more technical terms, meet the letter of limitations as posed in our statutes and guidelines. The design, Community involvement, input, passion and harmony will disappear and only default to letter of the law. More commercial plans will be diverted to this process like specific plans and mega developments

Furthermore, this move was accompanied by disparaging the work and perspective of volunteer citizen commissioners. It was also said from the dais that there was “a lack of education and inconsistency” and that commissioners needed” to take their jobs seriously.”

When Mayor Gillmor stated she wanted to “take the politics out of the committee”, I feel that it is the reverse…..politics is what has brought the end of this committee. It is an agenda to limit power and have more control.  Mayor Gillmor then added insult to injury with statements like “they should leave it to the professionals by putting it in the hands of our staff and professionals, as they are more efficient than some of our officials that sit on this board.” All I can say is that this is the pot calling the kettle black, hypocrisy at its finest in the City of Santa Clara.

This is was a unique process to Santa Clara having an architectural review. We are a rare local city to have it, similar to the way we elect our Police Chief being the only city in the entire state.

Other arguments for this change — which was also argued for eliminating an elected City Clerk with real job responsibilities — was that other cities do things this way. If other cities jump off a cliff, should we follow?

It used to be that “the Santa Clara Way” was revered, even when the City maybe should have considered adopting other cities’ practices. Now it feels like we’re tipping the scales the other way and can’t copy Sunnyvale and San José fast enough.

In the past years, ask yourself this question, “Has a coup taken place at city hall?”.

  1. The City Clerk role and responsibilities was changed under the charter without a vote of the people.
  2. The council approved a plan to go to 3 districts retreating from the court ordered 6 districts at cost of taxpayers.
  3. The Police Chief was pressured and ridiculed to only retire early
  4. The Fire Chief retired
  5. Most recently the removal of the Architectural Review process

To me, it seems like a plotline from the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’ as this is really a never-ending story about power and those who are afraid to lose it. In Santa Clara it is a real-life ‘Game of Thrones’. Our majority on council is misguided and letting their agenda and politics take the wheel. It reminds me of when Jesus spoke to God and said, “Forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.

I give lots of thanks to my current and past commissioners who have served with dedication, transparency and overall love for their community for no income.

 

Anthony Becker

Chair of Santa Clara Planning Commission

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1 Comment
  1. Diane Harrison 5 months ago
    Reply

    A little late, but why couldn’t the Architectural Review Committee be like other city committees, with interested citizens applying to be on it. Ideally, those who would apply would be knowledgeable about architecture, just like BPAC members all ride bikes and/or walk.

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