San Rafael is trying to streamline housing permits

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Developers proposing to build 10 or fewer homes in San Rafael could soon qualify for a streamlined permitting process under a new pilot program.

City Council last week voted 4-0 to start the program to open two new avenues for approval. Each aims to reduce the number of public gatherings and increase the chances of certain housing project applications being approved. Councilor Eli Hill was absent from the vote.

The program provides for a probationary period of at least one year and at least five project reviews. The move follows an effort launched in 2018 to address the housing shortage amid discouraging government guidelines to build more homes.

“I think we have to do everything we can to streamline every process, and this one in particular,” said Deputy Mayor Rachel Kertz.

Kertz said the city has heard from applicants that it is taking too long to go through permits for projects described as “small and simple.”

“Hopefully that will speed up the process,” Kertz said.

Jacob Noonan, the city’s housing program manager, said that after submitting reports on housing laws and receiving feedback from developers, the city has been working on code changes related to inclusive housing and density bonuses.

Officials also recommended a streamlined permitting process for smaller housing projects, Noonan said. That led to the development of the pilot program, he said.

The program is limited to the inspection of new construction of up to 10 apartments. It also applies to applications for extensions – of no more than 40% of the building area and no more than three additional apartments – on existing residential lots with three to ten apartments.

Projects that do not meet the criteria are subject to the normal approval process.

The pilot program will see two members and one alternate member of the Design Review Board selected for a subcommittee to provide feedback on applications.

Once the application is deemed complete, staff would determine whether the project required a “minor” or “major” review to determine which approval path it qualifies for.

Those undergoing minor environmental assessment require approval from the zone administrator. Subcommittee members may be invited to deliberation at the discretion of the zone administrator. The public would have the opportunity to express their views on the project before a decision is made.

Projects requiring a full environmental assessment would be subject to a joint hearing with the Planning Commission and Design Review Subcommittee, eliminating the need for the two bodies to review the application separately.

In either case, the project would not require a full Design Review Board hearing.

Resident Victoria DeWitt was concerned that the program would undermine the city’s design guidelines for the hillside. Ali Giudice, head of community development, said those rules would continue to apply.

Kertz said she understands that most other municipalities don’t have a design review board, and asked staff how other Marin cities handle design review.

Noonan said Ross has a design review board but no planning commission. The Board proposes projects to the City Council.

Mill Valley, San Anselmo and Larkspur use staff, the zone administrator or their planning commissions for design review, Noonan said.

Kertz also asked how many applications the city received that would qualify for the program.

Giudice said four applications had been submitted to the city since 2019 that would qualify.

For this reason, the council agreed that pilot staff should review at least five applications before assessing the value of the program.

“This town wouldn’t look so great if we didn’t have the Design Review Board,” said Councilor Maribeth Bushey.

She said the Design Review Board is doing “an amazing job.” Part of evaluating whether the program is successful is making sure officials have reviewed enough projects.

“I feel like we need to balance the strategic goal of building housing with recognizing the value that DRB has historically brought to San Rafael,” Bushey said.

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