For years, Woodside town officials have heard complaints from homeowners and others that the process for getting a building permit in town is unnecessarily difficult and costly.
Wanting to get to the bottom of this matter, the town in May emailed a questionnaire to 175 homeowners and 11 architects and building-trades professionals who had home-building projects under town review during 2014, 2015 and part of 2016.
Of the 52 responses received by the town, including from 43 homeowners, there was an even split overall between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, with comfort levels higher when dealing with Town Hall staff, and lower when processes involved citizen-review panels: the Planning Commission and the Architectural and Site Review Board.
Dissatisfaction also grew with processes that add cost and time to a project, Town Manager Kevin Bryant said.
"Overall, I think the survey demonstrates that there's a lot of work to do," Mr. Bryant said in a recent report to the Town Council. "I think that's true pretty much (at the time) a project comes through the door to its completion. ... Staff is not entirely pleased with the response and understands that we have work to do."
Resolving complaints about time and cost are high priorities, he said. Streamlining could include eliminating requirements for arborist reports on trees within construction zones since the process for protecting them is well understood. Also unnecessary may be requiring a licensed engineer to approve certain traffic-control plans, and requiring setback surveys for structures "well beyond" setback lines.
The point is to be less bureaucratic, Mr. Bryant told the Almanac. "It's not that we want different outcomes. It's just that we don't necessarily need all the process."
The questionnaire had 33 questions divided among four areas: general feedback for staff, and comments on project planning, permitting and building phases.
For example, question 16, in the staff feedback section, asked whether staff had been fair and reasonable in interpreting the meaning of gray areas in ordinances and guidelines. Of 44 responses, 19 were agreed that staff were fair and reasonable while 14 disagreed. Seven were neutral and four said the question was not relevant.
Question 21 asked whether planning review processes reflected a reasonable balance between preserving Woodside's rural character, the primary mission of project review, and a landowner's property rights. Of 40 responses, 20 expressed negative opinions compared to 17 that were positive.
Crafting the questions in consultation with Mr. Bryant were former mayor Dave Burow, Planning Commissioner William Fender and residents Greg Raleigh and Bengt Henriksen all prominent critics of Woodside's planning and review processes.
In a report, Mr. Bryant boiled down the survey's favorable and unfavorable opinions on interacting with local government.
■ Interacting with staff: nine favorable opinions and three unfavorable.
■ Interacting with the architectural and aite review administrator (Planning Director Jackie Young), who reviews projects not needing the scrutiny of the review board: two favorable opinions and none unfavorable.
■ Interacting with the Architectural and Site Review Board, two favorable opinions and eight unfavorable.
■ Interacting with the Planning Commission: two favorable opinions and seven unfavorable.
■ Interacting with the Town Council: Five favorable opinions and two unfavorable.
Click here for full survey results.
"We have a problem, and we need to address it," Mayor Deborah Gordon said at the meeting.
Mr. Burow, in a comment from the audience, said he considered the survey response rate as low "given the emotions people feel about this topic."
Given the possibility that people blocked the emailed invitations because they originated with Survey Monkey, Councilman Chris Shaw recommended sending postcards inviting people to take the survey on the web.
Councilman Tom Livermore recommended getting more feedback, particularly from professionals who represent homeowners at review meetings.
Councilman Peter Mason suggested that a future survey go back further than 2014 to combat "lingering beliefs" about building and planning processes and make the point that the town is interested in the issue.
Councilwoman Anne Kasten asked for monthly updates on how staff is responding to the survey.