May 16, 2008

A COWncerned COW wrote to us that:

“In January 2006 the report provided by Management Partners Inc. to improve the engineering, planning and building departments in Woodside seems to have lost steam. Susan George wrote up the sixteen recommendations by Management Partners and there have been little if any noticeable changes. In particular, time lines for homeowners and builders for the permit process. I have read many of the municipal codes and general provisions and I have read the report’s recommendations. Again, the town needs to be held accountable to the public to provide timely reviews and responses during the building process.

“The Basics of Building in Woodside” is not available on the town’s website or in The Woodsider. It’s just non-existent. It was originally published in The Woodsider in the winter of ’06 but I can’t find it anywhere on the website or The Woodsider as of today. So unless you go to the archives and look up that issue you’re out of luck getting your hands on this helpful piece of information. There have not been additional progress reports pertaining to the 16 recommendations and the result is little progress over the last 2 years. Of the 16 recommendations made 10 items are still in need of implementation.” In particular the COWncerned COW pointed out “Time lines for the building process still need to be addressed in order for people to have realistic expectations. Right now the process seems to have come to a halt.”

We agree 100%! We think Town staff and COWncil have really dropped the BULL on this! We’ve written about Management Partners and their recommendations on three occasions before, but its past time to reexamine the issues. More than two and a half years ago we expressed hope that Woodside would follow the COWnsultants’ recommendation and bring some light and air to the planning and building process in Woodside. (See here)

Our follow up, more than a year later, made it clear that little progress has been made. We went right down the list and showed what had been done and what hadn’t. (See the Town’s staff report here)

Since our last article not much at all has changed (see the list below).

Recommendation 1: Add one dedicated and field experienced engineer to the Engineering Division and make him/her responsible solely for development review.
We have high hopes for the new town engineer who is replacing Kent Dewell; however it appears to us that Hope still supervises the development engineer who reviews plans. Sadly this part of the process has not gotten any better.

Recommendation 2: Prepare a detailed application checklist for all divisions to be used by the applicant in preparing the submittal and by the reviewer in evaluating the submittal.
We haven’t seen any such checklist — have you? We would hope it would be posted on the Web.

Recommendation 3: Prepare a standard format for review comments to improve organization and clarity of responses. We haven’t seen any such checklist — have you?
We understand from other COWS there has been no change in this process and some feel it’s even worse now.

Recommendation 4: If plan quality does not improve measurably with the addition of a development engineer, add clerical staff to ease project manager workload so that they can more thoroughly screen submittals.
Where are we on this assessment?

Recommendation 5: After the development engineer position is added, set specific review timelines and measure performance against them.
We haven’t seen any such timeline and we have herd that the review period is even longer and more frustrating.

Recommendation 6: Set standards for customer service and measure employee performance against them.
When will there be real accountability for staff’s actions? When will the public’s input really be taken seriously? We think this is too important to get lost in the haystack.

Recommendation 7: Advertise the Town’s willingness to hold pre-application meetings and encourage new applicants to attend one to go over the Town’s process and to discuss realistic timelines.
While this is being done, the information people get at these meetings differs widely from different staff members for the same types of projects. We keep being told that “the process is out of control and completely arbitrary”.

Recommendation 8: Copy the applicant/owner on all comments and conditions given to contractors.
We believe this is being done.

Recommendation 9: Publish a website page or community newsletter article on the basics of building in Woodside.
This was accomplished — it appears to us to be only recycled information from already existing handouts. We were hoping for something more comprehensive and which reflect the “real” process.

Recommendation 10: Hold quarterly meetings with the development community to discuss regulatory changes, outline the Town’s development review process, and other related matters.
Unless these are private meetings with just a select few this is not being done.

Recommendation 11: Create a menu of standard design options and amenities and set design standards as much as possible to reduce variability at the Architecture & Site Review Board.
We still haven’t seen this.

Recommendation 12: Assure that applicants are given a copy of staff recommendations prior to finalization and are afforded an opportunity to provide comments in writing for distribution to all decision makers as part of the standard review process.
Applicants are still complaining they are not given an opportunity to comment before finalization and are not being given an opportunity to have their comments go forward at the same time as staffs’ report. Shouldn’t staff be there to help COWs get through the process?

Recommendation 13: Set fees and surcharges to fully cover development-related costs.
A consultant was apparently retained to undertake a study. We still haven’t seen the results. We do not think additional fees are needed for cost recovery if staff works efficiently. Indeed, there is a widespread suspicion in the community that fees are overcharged and some of the harassment that folks experience is motivated by the desire to collect fees.

Recommendation 14: Purchase and implement a new computer software system that automates the development review project tracking and financial systems.
This is the new Trakit system they discussed. We have not herd that it is in place.

Recommendation 15: Expand open counter hours to the public to include the noon period and provide some hours open to the public after 3 p.m. when construction work generally winds down.
This is not being done.

Recommendation 16: Provide reviewing employees the workspace necessary to be efficient, as funding and space permit.
This recommendation may not be practical and we do not perceive it to be the cause of most inefficiencies.

Our question to the COWncil and Susan George is when can we expect the latest progress report on these recommendations? The COWmunity needs to see what progress has been made (if any) on these issues in the years since taxpayers paid for this study. Changes need to be made and the building process streamlined and improved in our Town. We challenge Town staff and the Town COWncil to finally take these issues seriously.

One Comment on “COWncerned

  1. Anonymous

    While it’s certainly not a developer’s utopia, I can say that the process is much easier than it used to be. We’ve done two good-size building projects in Woodside about 10 years apart. For each, we, as the homeowners, were the main liaison with Building & Planning (we didn’t pawn this off on the contractor.)

    Specifically, I can say that:

    1) The staff has been very helpful in meeting ahead of time to discuss the various rules and the probable viability of plans before the ASRB. In our case, the staff thought highly of our project yet it was shot down by the ASRB. Though frustrating, the staff seemed as surprised as were, so I chalked that up to a learning experience all around. Getting the ASRB on the same page as the Planning Commission and the Town Council would probably go a long way toward helping problems like that.

    2) While I can see the need for a dedicated engineer reporting to Hope, I can say that EJ Kim has been a great addition to the Engineering Department. He’s easy to work with and seems to have a good sense for what’s important. And he’s nice.

    3) Though we don’t have a slick Web site for tracking every little detail about our projects, I can say that the customer service in Building and Planning today is light years better than it was 10 years ago. Dedicating a project manager to each project has been a big help (someone who actually knows what’s going on with your project — wow!) And I regularly see Hope helping keep wait times to a minimum and the desk.

    Finally, I will just say this: Woodside is a place of extremes. We have a huge variation in the scale of projects, from a DIY’ers back deck to a professionally managed mega project with its own staff of inspectors. The needs of the many different participants in this process are very different. As an involved homeowner, I can say that I’m finding that my experience with Building and Planning improves every time I interact with them.

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