The City’s Planning Commission, the subject of scrutiny for its lack of diversity and concerns that it has tilted too far in the direction of opposing regulation of suburban developers, is under review by City Council, but exactly how to ensure its balance is the subject of debate.
Mayor Ivy Taylor and council members agreed Wednesday that changes need to be made, but there is no agreement yet on how to make the necessary changes.
Planning Commission members will be key to overseeing implementation of the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan. With demographers agreeing that San Antonio’s population will grow by an estimated one million people over the next 25 years, a key measure of the plan is whether it can curb unchecked sprawl, traffic congestion and deteriorating air quality, or whether regulations will be too relaxed to affect the quality of city development.
City Council appointed and reappointed six members to the Planning Commission on Thursday by a 7-4 vote. None of the commissioners live south of Highway 90. Some also worry that some commissioners too heavily favor loosely-regulated development over public interest.
The Planning Commission – as in many other major cities in the U.S. – is an at-large panel, meaning commissioners can live anywhere and are interviewed by the Governance Committee and approved by City Council.
Members of the Council’s Governance Committee voted unanimously on Wednesday to move forward with several changes, which had varying degrees of committee support.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who filed the request for consideration and is not on the Governance Committee, is pushing for a district-appointed commission.
That would require a change in the City Charter, which needs ballot approval from citizens that couldn’t be held until November 2017. The Charter Review Commission will begin considering such changes when it meets next week for the first time this year.
“There is very little relationship with City Council on the Planning Commission,” Treviño said after the meeting. “One sure-fire way to change that is to go to single-district representation appointees.”
If commissioners had a direct connection to districts, he added, neighborhood association leaders and constituents could know that they could contact their representative on the commission and have their voice heard.
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The day and/or time that the Planning Commission meets – the second and fourth Wednesday at 2 p.m. – will likely be adjusted to allow for more commissioner and public engagement in the process. Council members and Mayor Taylor, who chairs the Governance Committee, were open to considering a quadrant-based process that would require appointing commissioners from certain regions of the city, adding more voting ex-officio members, and allowing the full City Council to interview applicants instead of the Governance Committee.
“You can appoint the planning director to be the watch dog of the comprehensive plan,” was the example Development Services Director Rod Sanchez gave.
These changes to the City’s unified development code (UDC) could be made relatively quickly through discussion with other Council committees and a City Council vote.
“(City staff and the Charter Commission are) also going to look at what else we could be doing,” Treviño said. “We want to turn over all those rocks.”
Four new members of the Planning Commission will need to be selected in 2017.
One disadvantage to a district-appointed commission, Sanchez said, is that there may be a tendency to defer judgment to a district representative rather than take in the expertise and perspectives of all commissioners.
This often happens on City Council: if an issue arises in a particular district, other City Council members will trust the judgment of the representative from that district.
Because the Planning Commission deals with highly technical requests and appeals, Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said, it should remain an expert-heavy panel full of “people that know what they’re talking about,” like trained engineers, architects, developers, planners etc.
Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) advised City Council against choosing a panel solely comprised of members of the development community.
“We have certain pressures from certain industries that are in conflict with the balance that we are trying to represent,” he said.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said he is weary of changing the City Charter “at the drop of a hat,” and compared it to the process of changing the U.S. Constitution.
“My worry, Mayor, is we’re sort of looking at a solution in search of a problem,” Krier said.