As of late, the Mission Viejo Planning Commission, under the direction of staff from the Community Development Department, has decided that elements of the Municipal Code do not apply to a select group of landowners within the city. These departments have consistently generated staff reports stating signage “proposed by the application is consistent with the provisions of the Zoning Code” despite clear violations of the code. (Staff report dated January 7, 2013 for Minor Modification Permit MM2013-264- granting two freestanding monument signs for an applicant at the corner of LaPaz and Marguerite.)
While the zoning code clearly requires a five foot setback from the street, the application package appears to show a sign that is non-compliant with that code section. Calls to the report’s author were not returned to validate. This follows a similar pattern where signs in front of Saddleback Lanes and multiple other locations within the city have recently been approved despite violations of a plain-letter reading of the code.
While my complaints about these signs may appear at first glance to be rather persnickety, I have at least three reasons why I believe them to be important. First, it is emblematic of larger issues at City Hall. When the 7Eleven project at the corner of Marguerite and Trabuco was approved late last year, despite the fact that the zoning incompatibility went un-noted by initial staff reports, the project had gained too much momentum before staff oversight was caught. Small oversights might be fine on a small-scale, but when these oversights become the norm, it is only a matter of time before they have large consequences.
Second, it shows an unhealthy reliance on staff on the part of Council and Planning Commission Members. Despite the high error rate demonstrated by past reports, elected officials responsible for protecting our community continue their out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality. In a recent hearing for the loosening of signage code, [Community Development Director] Charles Wilson assured staff that despite a obvious lack of definition of “site” in the new statutory language, he would use common sense in his interpretation and enforcement. Rasputin-like the real power in our city appears to be in the hands of staff who alternate between legislator, judge, and enforcer with little executive oversight.
And third, it weakens our city’s hand when real enforcement actions need to be taken to protect critical elements of our community. In response to my concerns Code Enforcement Supervisor Karen Rottmann told me that “code provision[s] [are] reviewed on a case-by-case basis by staff.” Shockingly this was the first time I have ever been told that sections of the code are optional. If this is the case, what power can our city legitimately put together to combat issues like massive electronic billboards at the Kaleidoscope? What principled way do we have to determine the dividing line between code sections that staff has deemed optional, and those that the rest of us have to abide by?