November 16th City Council Hearing Could Offer Answer
When Pleasant Hill Planning Commissioners recently gave the green light to a 67-foot-tall illuminated pylon sign located adjacent to homes around Diablo Valley College, despite the fact such signs are expressly forbidden by city zoning rules, community push-back was inevitable. So it’s no surprise the controversial decision has been challenged.
On Monday, October 26th, Pleasant Hill Citizens for Responsible Growth appealed the Commission’s October 13, 2015 approval of the 67-foot sign located off of Chilpancingo near the old DVC Shopping Center (former site of old Safeway and K-Mart). The City has scheduled the appeal hearing for Monday, November 16, 2015.
Read PHCRG's appeal here.
Eager for Development
Everyone wants DVC Shopping Center developed to benefit the community. At the same time, residents expect development to conform to zoning laws that maintain community safety, functionality, and visual appeal. Development shouldn't be an either-or proposition and development standards needn't be sacrificed to achieve economic growth.
Plans to revitalize the under-performing K-Mart property have been pending for years, as it changed ownership. The prior owner planned a housing project, with a retail element. The current owner, Merlone Geier Partners, purchased the property three years ago to develop an all-commercial project to include shops, restaurants and a CarMax used car lot.
Both the developer and City are eager to begin project construction. This is understandable because local government agencies are strapped for cash these days and Pleasant Hill is no exception. Pleasant Hill’s employee pensions have a $25.2 million funding shortfall (according to June 30, 2013 CalPERS reports), which increases costs. As City payroll costs grow, everything else in the operating budget gets squeezed. For example, in recent years the City has saved money in the short term by delaying maintenance and repairs. Today Pleasant Hill estimates its deferred maintenance for streets at $60 million, roughly three times the size of the City’s operating budget.
Merlone’s development plans will yield significant sales tax income for the City’s benefit, to help balance its budget. This is a good thing -- but at what price?
Developer Hardball or City Pushover?
The City issued notice of the November 16th appeal hearing at lightning speed – received via USPS mail less than 24 hours after PHCRG filed its appeal with the City – suggesting the City is trying hard to help developer Merlone Geier Partners stay on schedule to begin project construction in January 2016. Merlone’s property manager, Liz Munger, says the developer has already signed a lease with the national used car chain CarMax for 433,000 sq. ft. of space on the site of the old K-Mart store.
When the developer purchased the property three years ago, he undoubtedly knew about Pleasant Hill’s strict sign rules. Nevertheless, during project discussions with the City, Merlone consistently positioned the tall signage as a project deal-breaker, refusing to budge an inch on the point.
In response to the developer's hardball stance, City staff and Commissioners artfully evaded public discussion of the fact the developer's plans are a complete departure from Pleasant Hill development standards and zoning requirements.
Fan Dance Around Problems
The long fan dance between the City and developer culminated on October 13th when the Planning Commission threw out the rule book and, absent required analysis and findings, granted everything the developer asked:
- City zoning regulations limit commercial signs to 8 ft. in height. The Commission granted the developer’s request for a 67 ft. tall sign that’s over 8 times taller than allowed.
- City zoning regs also limit the size of commercial signs to 64 sq. ft. The Commission approved the developer’s 1,276 square-foot sign that’s nearly 2000% larger than allowed.
While City zoning regs allow adjustments over the maximum 8 ft. height and 64 sq. ft. size limits, they also establish a 35 ft. maximum height limit for buildings and accessory structures. The Commission approved a "major adjustment" that exceeds the 35 ft. height limit, though they lack authority to do so.
One purpose of City zoning regs serve is to "provide substantial compliance with city-wide design guidelines." City design guidelines prohibit pylon and pole signs, a fact disregarded by the Commission.
Further, City zoning regs explicitly state: "Where conflict occurs between the provisions of this title and any other city code, chapter, resolution, guideline, or regulation, the more restrictive provision shall control unless otherwise specified in this chapter." Consequently, the Commission's approval of a sign that exceeds established height and size limits is illegal.
The Planning Commission’s approval may signal the City is willing to cave in and simply ignore its own policies and procedures that prohibit pylon signs. Concerned residents are left wondering why the City would abandon community standards rather than representing the public interest. Residents also wonder why City officials failed to seek a win-win compromise solution with the developer that also satisfies community concerns.
No Alternatives Considered
In its appeal, PHCRG says the Commission failed to make required findings and ignored conflicts between the proposed project and community goals in the City’s general plan. In addition, the appeal says the Commission failed to explore alternatives, stating:
Throughout deliberations, Commissioners have accepted -- without question -- the Applicant’s premise that DV Plaza must be seen from the freeway, rather than from the nearest arterial or commercial collector street as provided in the zoning regulations. Consequently, the Applicant has presented no alternatives.
Finding solutions to tough problems takes time and effort. For this project the Commission ignored the problems altogether and sidestepped the hard work needed to identify solutions that satisfy both residents and the developer.
Transformation of Community Look and Feel
If the City Council affirms the Commission’s approval, more pylon signs could be in Pleasant Hill's future despite their prohibition by City sign regulations and sign-design guidelines. Preferential treatment extended to one developer is likely to prompt requests for like treatment from others. PHCRG’s appeal states:
If the City radically departs from its City-wide Sign Design Guidelines and sign regulations for this Applicant, the City will set precedent and be pressured to approve similar pylon signs for other shopping centers or businesses in Pleasant Hill.
Residents worry that, by ignoring zoning and sign regulations, the City risks losing its attractive small-town charm -- the very reason people choose to call Pleasant Hill home. Relaxing development standards could transform Pleasant Hill's low-rise, suburban character into an ugly city characterized by SoCal-style sign blight.
Show Up, Stand Up, Speak Up
PHCRG petitions City Council to overturn the Commission’s decision and “ensure accurate and thorough analysis of the proposed signage to ensure consistency with the policies, standards and procedures in the General Plan and zoning ordinance.”
The Monday, November 16, 2015 City Council meeting is scheduled to begin at 7:30pm. The meeting will be held in City Council Chambers located at 100 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill. Attend if you can; or let City officials know your views by sending them an e-mail via the City website here.