Planning Department Website Watch By ZELDA BRONSTEIN

Tuesday December 07, 2004

As I’ve previously written in the Daily Planet, some time in the past year the Berkeley Planning Department removed from its website the lists of notices of decision that document the Zoning Adjustment Board’s recent approval of use permits.  

Because a ZAB action can be appealed to the City Council only for 14 days after a notice of decision has been issued, the timely posting of NODs, as they’re popularly known, is one of the planning staff’s most important responsibilities. Formerly NOD lists were mailed out to interested parties. With the advent of electronic communication, the mailings were discontinued, and the lists were posted on the Department’s website.  

The removal of the NODs from the department website was never formally announced or explained. Indeed, well after the NODs themselves had disappeared, the heading “Notices of Decision” still appeared on the website. Now planning staff have eliminated this incongruity: as of last week, the heading was also gone.  

In the wake of this latest disappearance, I e-mailed the city’s zoning officer, Debbie Sanderson, and asked why the department couldn’t resume posting a list of current NODs on its website.  

Sanderson gave me a reply worthy of Condoleezza Rice. First she informed me that “we put [the NOD list] on the website voluntarily to make it easier for the public to track projects. It is our long term goal to put the list back on the website, as soon as we can free up a little staff time to further develop the project tracking database that we’ve created.”  

I e-mailed back wondering why, if the department really wants to make it easier for the public to track projects, planning staff couldn’t post the NODs right now. Given that the lists rarely number more than twenty addresses and dates at a time, posting any one list couldn’t require more than five minutes. Why wait until the “project tracking data base” has been further developed—an undertaking that sounds pretty ambitious?  

In reply, Sanderson thanked me for my “response” and added that “we’ll consider posting some type of NOD list.” That was it.  

Having served almost seven years on the Planning Commission, I’m aware that the Planning Department is terribly shorthanded. But what we’re talking about here is not the revision of the city’s creek ordinance or the calculation of density bonuses or the rules governing historic preservation—just a few of the complex Berkeley land use issues awaiting resolution.  

By contrast, putting the NODs on the department’s website would seem to be a simple and straightforward task. If it’s more complicated than it appears, staff should say so. Otherwise, it looks as if Sanderson and her crew want to make it harder, not easier, for the public to track projects.  

Returning the NODs to the department website would be a welcome gesture of staff goodwill and responsiveness. It would convey an attitude just the opposite of the one expressed by the statement, “we put [the NOD list] on the website voluntarily.” The message there is: We do as we please—get it?  

I’m afraid I don’t get it. City staff’s job is to help the public, not to boss it. That’s the very different message sent by the six objectives of the General Plan’s Citizen Participation Element:  

1. Ensure citizen and community participation in General Plan and other planning tasks.  

2. Improve citizen participation in relationship to the crucial decision-making bodies in land use matters.  

3. Enhance notification, information, and process for citizen input in land use matters.  

4. Improve neighborhood participation in land use planning and decisions.  

5. Increase the use of new technology for citizen participation.  

6. Improve the role of cty administrative structure and staff in relationship to meaningful citizen participation.  

Berkeleyans committed to democratic governance and concerned about local land use should put the realization of these goals high among their political resolutions for 2005.  


Zelda Bronstein is a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.