he town of Woodside is embarking on a major overhaul of its Planning and Building Department that intends to make its services more user-friendly and its decisions more consistent.
The recommendations, taken from a study of the department by consultant Irwin Kaplan, include changing the job description of the planning director, creating a couple of new staff positions and eliminating some contract workers and replacing them with one full-time employee.
"This is a wonderful report," said Mayor Carol Ann Hodges. "I think you've proven you were worth our investment," she told Mr. Kaplan at the February 27 Town Council meeting.
At that meeting, the Town Council voted 7-0 to adopt the report and put into effect an initial round of changes.
Town Manager Susan George also announced the departure of Planning Director David Rizk, who said he plans to leave his post by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.
Under Mr. Kaplan's proposal, the new planning director will focus on long-range planning issues, departmental management and policies, rather than be involved in day-to-day oversight of application processing.
A new position to take over those day-to-day duties, called a senior planner, will be created, and new job descriptions for both positions will be drawn up, Town Manager Susan George told the council.
Some of the chief complaints about the Building and Planning Department stem from the difficulty most users have trying to obtain approval of development requests. According to Mr. Kaplan, the process is plagued by redundant reviews, contradictory and unclear rules and policies, and a fragmented process in which many people are involved but no one person is accountable.
Another key problem is the eight-member staff, which focuses more on the process than on the customer, according to Mr. Kaplan. The department's staff needs to change its "collective mindset" and guide applicants through the process, rather than expecting the applicants to learn staff's jobs.
"The pilot doesn't expect the passengers to learn to fly the airplane," Mr. Kaplan points out in his report.
He suggests that staff members attend customer service workshops to help them change their approach from "This is what is required" to "What would I do if I were building this for myself?"
One of the three "permit technicians" who work at the front counter of the Building and Planning Department will be assigned to each application to shepherd the project through reviews and approvals. One of the permit technician positions will be reclassified to a manager position with a higher salary.
Modifying the town's building codes to eliminate inconsistencies, contradictions and difficult-to-interpret sections will be part of a more complicated second-round of Planning Commission and Town Council discussions.
Recommendations for that second phase include: eliminating the need for both the Planning Commission and Architectural and Site Review Board to review certain projects; streamlining and perhaps eliminating duplicate approvals for septic system permits by the county and the town; updating handouts and maps on the town's geological regulations; putting building regulations, applications and project status reports on the town Web site; and improving informational handouts.
Rather than having each department that reviews a project application send out individual project status letters, Mr. Kaplan suggested that a single status review letter would be a better idea.
Mr. Kaplan recommended that the Town Council also consider how to address complaints that some of the decisions made by the Planning Commission and the ASRB are arbitrary and subjective.