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Photograph by Jessica Lussenhop
Last Rites: Richard Irish made a plea before the Board of Supervisors minutes before they disbanded the Planning Department appeals board on which he served.

Board Stiffed

After bucking Santa Cruz County staff and supervisors, a rowdy planning department appeals board gets the ax.

By Jessica Lussenhop

THE REMAINING three members of the Building, Accessibility and Fire Code Appeals Board really, really didn't want to be fired. Even after the resignation of two of their members after only three meetings. Even after county Counsel Dana McRae wrote that her office "will not provide legal advice or representation to your board" and administrative officer Susan Mauriello penned a request to the Board of Supervisors that the members be removed.

"Give BAFCAB time to work out our operational difficulties," implored board member and civil engineer Richard Irish in a statement he read at the June 2 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Nor was the audience, comprised mostly of the same people who crusaded for months to have the board formed, ready to see them go.

"I applauded your intelligent actions by instating that board and am very disappointed that any consideration would be made to disband it now," said independent land-use consultant Claire Machado, who has spoken before the supervisors numerous times over the appeals process. Two other speakers called the supervisors "domestic terrorists" for attempting to eliminate the board.

BAFCAB chairman and electrical contractor Dan Bronson spoke last. "County staff is out of control. If you, the Board of Supervisors, do not take action, you'll find yourselves in court time after time," he said. "I have to question who's in charge of this county."

Despite all that, it became clear when Supervisor John Leopold began to speak that the board didn't have a prayer. "I want to thank the members of BAFCAB for the work that they've done," he said. "I'd like to make a motion to remove the existing members ..."--the rest of his sentence was drowned out in a chorus of booing and shouts of "This is tyranny!" and "Dictatorship!" Supervisor Ellen Pirie called the situation "severely dysfunctional."

In the end, the termination of the board received unanimous approval, and the room emptied into the hallway for a spirited bout of complaining and half-joking about a recall on Leopold. "This was a show--they had decided that we had to go beforehand," said Irish. "I'm concerned that the county is doing something illegal."

The few dozen members of the public that rallied around the board are extremely familiar faces around the county building--the group has been fighting for years over what it believes is an overly punitive Planning Department.

"For quite a while, we've had a small but passionate group of people who feel very strongly that the Planning Department is too strict," says Supervisor Neal Coonerty. "They saw this appeals board as a way to overrule the Planning Department, to sort of become a very independent authority. This was not ever contemplated to be the venue they hoped it would be."

Planning Director Tom Burns says that many in the group have had their property red-tagged by the county (a red tag is a stop-work order issued over unpermitted construction or remodeling) and feel they have no proper recourse.

"People want to get into a philosophical conversation about whether our planning process is ethical," he says. "[But we're saying,] was it built without a permit, yes or no? What's the big confusion?"

BAFCAB was never meant to hear red tag appeals, but its members seemed to be pushing for a rewrite of county code that would eventually expand their jurisdiction to include red tags and other appeals, invoking State Building Code 108.8, which says building appeals should be heard by an independent body of experts not employed by the county.

Tensions between the Planning Department staff and BAFCAB came to a head four weeks ago when Bronson called a meeting to hear an appeal that planning staff had already deemed outside of BAFCAB jurisdiction. Though the meeting was ultimately canceled, it was the first tangible result of the fact that BAFCAB board members Irish, Bronson, David Parks and architect Marty Fiorovich were convinced that state law gives them a bigger role than the one given them by the supervisors. BAFCAB was only allowed to hear appeals on technical issues like how wide a doorway or a road should be, and only after the Planning Department, acting as gatekeeper, had determined it should.

Supervisor Coonerty agrees that the board's action--dismissing the remaining members and taking over the BAFCAB duties--was swift, but says it was done to protect the county from legal action.

"They indicated they wanted to hear appeals they were not allowed to hear. If they would have heard those appeals and ruled on them, it would have bogged down into a complete legal farce," he says. "We would have had to hire an outside attorney to defend them, with taxpayers' money. It would have gone on endlessly."

Coonerty says the supes will likely hear the first of two appeals that have been languishing in the controversy before the end of the month, and that any attempt to reform an independent BAFCAB is not likely until two years down the line.

Leopold agrees that the situation was simply untenable. "It's unprecedented to have county counsel say they can no longer represent a commission," he says. "It became clear what the board should do."

Both Fiorovich and Irish have said they will file a complaint with the state of California Department of Housing and Community Development, and Bronson is building a website to help residents who'd like to file an appeal or lawsuit against the county.

Leopold is well aware the controversy isn't going anywhere. "This is the end of this chapter. I've lived in Santa Cruz County for 25 years. We'll never hear the end of this," he says.

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