I often tell folks that while the taxes in California are irritating, what has really killed my interest in expanding in California is the regulatory burden. It took 3 years to get through Ventura County planning department to get permission to put a modular ticket booth in a corner of an existing parking lot -- only to be denied. I have faced potential prosecution because we demolished an unsafe deck without state permission. I now have to fire people who try to work through lunch or else face employees suing me (successfully!) later for their voluntarily working through lunch.
I think that is why I enjoyed this blog, SLO Leaks, so much. It is a 3-1/2 year story of an obviously wealthy gentleman trying to get the local planning board and later the California Coastal Commission to allow him to build a house on his residential-zoned land. I sat up for hours last night reading through it. 42 months and $3 million later, he still is not even close to having his approvals. It is interesting to see his respectful-of-authority tone shifting over time, until at the end he is writing about how he has shifted his company's new office and expansion from California to Texas.
Here are a few nuggets. Here is what he is up against:
Once a year the Public Works Dept gives a report on what has happened in the previous year in the Avila Beach area. One part of their report is on how many building permits were issued. In order to get a building permit you first have to get a minor use permit through the Planning Dept, so this is a good gauge of how much work the Planning Dept does. So for the period from July 1, 2010 to June 30, 2011, in the Avila area, which has Ryan Hostetter as a full time planner, the entire list of building permit issued is here:
One single family residential permit was issued during the entire year.
That’s it. No commercial buildings, no office building, no barns, just one single family house permit. And it wasn’t my permit, that’s for sure – because I am now going through the potentially years long Coastal Commission permit appeal process before I can even apply for a building permit.
So after waiting nearly a year, Daniel Robinson, who is a low level bureaucrat with the California Coastal Commission, and who had never even been to the house site, and who had never even met me or my wife, has told me that he doesn’t like my front yard, he thinks the retaining walls are too big, he thinks my house is too big, and that he doesn’t like the overall design of my house. Daniel thinks that my house should look more like a farm house, and also that people walking around in the city of Pismo Beach will be offended by the mere sight of my house (so called “visual impact”). And if my house design doesn’t please him then he will recommend to the full Coastal Commission that they deny my permits. Since I will only get 3 minutes to defend my house in front of the Coastal Commission I would then probably lose that permit appeal vote and I will be unable to build my house at all, and I will lose about $3 million, and will have wasted years of my life.
The California Coastal Commission is perhaps the most capricious and authoritarian government entity in the country, for example:
But then there was the minor issue of a permit for Daly City, a suburb of San Francisco, to rebuild a rock retaining wall that had been damaged during the last winter storms. It was such a minor issue that Daley City didn’t even send a representative to the CCC meeting. What could possibly go wrong?
The rock retaining wall was to protect a dirt and gravel road that follows along the coastline. On the other side of the dirt road is an abandoned landfill that Daley City capped over in the 1970′s. And I watched the Coastal Commission, apparently on a whim, decide to overrule their staff and instead of issuing a permit they decided to require Daily City to dig up the entire landfill and relocate it inland somewhere. Where it got relocated to the Coastal Commission didn’t care – since that isn’t their problem. And the estimate to do this landfill relocation is $125,000,000.00!
$125,000,000.00 works out to $1250.00 for every man, woman, and child in Daly City. And the Coastal Commission decided that this must happen with about 10 minutes of discussion amongst themselves and without a single fact to cloud their minds! It was both unbelievable and terrifying.
From all the facts, it looks to me like he is never going to get approved. But you can get quick approval from the CCC -- if you are rich and have political juice
Like me, [Steve Blank] is in the high tech industry. Like me, he has started several high tech companies....
After Steve sold his last startup company he applied for a permit to build a house in the California Coastal Zone in 2000. And, just like me, Steve’s land use permit was appealed to the California Coastal Commission. The reason for the appeal was “sensitive habitat” issues. (I don’t have any sensitive habitat issues because my proposed house is in the middle of a field of non-native weeds.)
Unlike me, Steve’s appeal to the Coastal Commission went pretty smoothly. He had his hearing in only 8 months – start to finish. It has taken me a year and a half, after waiting a year and a half for SLO County to issue the permit in the first place. And there were no onerous “Special Conditions” imposed on Steve by either San Mateo County or the Coastal Commission.
Superficially Steve’s house and my house are similar. I have a main house and a barn on 37 acres, Steve has a main house, two barns, and a farm labor house. But Steve’s house is 15,780 sq. ft., with a swimming pool, and a 2,500 sq. ft. barn, and another 3,040 sq. ft. barn 31 ft. high, and a 1240 sq. ft. farm labor house all on 261 acres. So Steve’s house is around 3 times larger than my proposed house (and much taller). Steve also got to have a fence and there was no requirement for public access. And Steve was able to build his house to look anyway he wanted. No “rural agricultural theme” architecture for Steve, that’s for sure. Steve can also plant in his yard pretty much any damn thing he wants.
Steve Blank is one of the current California Coastal Commissioners.