For years, Woodside Town Hall has been on the receiving end of harsh criticism over how it reviews plans to build or renovate homes in town.
Critics complain about persistent attention to detail in the building and planning departments, and that the staffs are not sufficiently oriented to creating a pleasing experience for applicants when they seek building and conditional-use permits.
To learn more about the nature and extent of the criticism, and whether it is justified, the Town Council is considering surveying residents and contractors who have engaged with these departments over the previous nine months.
The council is acting on a suggestion by resident William Fender, who proposed a survey after describing his unsatisfying experience with the town as he tries to remodel a two-car garage.
Although Woodside's goals are simply stated in the town's general plan maintain rural character yet allow for reasonable development of private property oversight of these activities is a complex task, in part because Town Hall has a reputation for extraordinary attention to detail, something Town Council members have acknowledged.
Town Manager Kevin Bryant has proposed that the town adopt a brief survey, modeled after one used in Milpitas. The survey would ask nine multiple-choice questions about whether town's services are responsive, timely and consistent. A tenth question seeks additional feedback.
What critics say
Such a survey might just scratch the surface of the public's discontent, said Greg Raleigh, a resident and regular critic of planning and building regulations. "Right now, we have a very difficult set of ordinances that evolved over time to make a rat's nest, a maze for people to get through," he said.
The ordinances also allow for interpretation by staff, the Architectural and Site Review Board and the Planning Commission, and the interpretations have not been favorable to residents, he said.
Town officials can be cops or coaches in overseeing planning and building, Mr. Raleigh said. "We have a lot of cops right now in the program and we don't have very many coaches. If you take a broken process and you act like a cop, that's what creates all the pain," he said.
Town Hall should focus on helping applicants fit their projects within the system and "have an enjoyable experience," he said, rather than on matters such as limiting off-haul of soil from properties.
One of the key questions that applicants should ask themselves, he says, is: "Were you allowed to implement your vision?"
"It's embarrassing," said resident Bengt Henriksen, "that many contractors don't even want to go to Woodside because it's too complicated." Mr. Henriksen recommended studying the effectiveness of town bodies such as the Architectural and Site Review Board and Planning Commission, where, he said, he has heard "the most naive questions" asked of applicants.
Town Hall should be given deadlines on when small, medium and large projects should be resolved, he said.
The survey's questions, said Mr. Fender, should "ferret out where major problems are" so the council could consider appropriate changes. Some examples of survey questions: Was the staff flexible? Did they work to find solutions? Do they have a sense of urgency to move the project forward?
Council weighs in
At its July 28 meeting, the council discussion focused on gathering useful data in a way that captures the applicant's actual experience.
"You need to break it down," Councilman Dave Tanner said. "If you have a bad experience going in to get a tree (removal) permit, should it reflect upon the planning department or the engineering department?" he said.
The survey does need more specificity, council members said. Perhaps a check-all-that-apply box, Mayor Tom Shanahan said. "Three or four boxes (checked) on a major project, that's probably worthwhile (data)."
To relate to the applicants' point of view, maybe the queries should be arranged by activity rather than by department, members said. Questions should be asked as a project progresses, and the survey should convey the message that anonymity is assured, they said.
In gathering data over time, staff needs to find a way to prevent abuse of the survey process, Councilman Dave Burow noted. "We don't want to be gamed," he said, by someone who's "very unhappy" and submitting negative comments every day.
"We're going to get a lot of negative comments because this is a stressful process no matter who does it," Mr. Shanahan said. A positive approach might say, "'We particularly welcome your suggestions for improvement,' so that we get some action items, not 'You stink.'"
The survey should convey the message that "we do care, we are trying to be responsive and we want to get this information and we want to make changes," said Councilwoman Deborah Gordon. "And the most important thing is the last one, on here's what you can do to make it better."
A subcommittee of Councilman Burow, Mr. Raleigh, Mr. Fender and Mr. Henriksen will be reworking the survey language to come up with a second draft for presentation at a later meeting.