Is the Los Gatos Planning Commission really helping the Los Gatos Town Council?
That's the question planners and council members tried to answer Wednesday evening when they met at the to discuss the higher body's April 18 decision to revise conditional use permits previously solely approved by the lower body.
On April 4, Los Gatos Mayor Joe Pirzynski and Vice Mayor Steve Rice asked that the permit issue be reviewed.
On April 18, the council, as one planner put it, "pulled the rug from under the commission," when it voted to now have final say in the issuance of all permits.
Before, the council heard only alcohol beverage service conditional use permits after the commission acted them upon.
Now, all such permits must be heard by the council, including those previously just handled by the commission, such as changes from retail to restaurant, retail to personal services and so-called "non-formula" retail to "formula retail."
The change, which caught all commissioners by surprise and was made without any notification to the body, concerned Marico Sayoc, planning commission chairwoman, who requested that her colleagues meet with the council on Wednesday evening to discuss the matter.
At the heart of the issue was the lower body's approval of the expansion of Gardino's, a popular downtown Italian restaurant, into retail space vacated by Los Gatos Baby & Tot Boutique. That approval was , which expressed concern over converting a retail use to a restaurant use.
Sayoc noted that the changes have confused the public, particularly restaurateurs like Pete Jillo, owner of Gardino's. She said applicants of such permits now feel like they have to plead their case before the commission and the council.
"It's exasperating for the average person," Sayoc said, suggesting that maybe permits should only be considered by the council, bypassing the commission.
But Councilwoman Diane McNutt said the vetting of permit applications by the commission and the back-and-forth between both bodies produces a "better final product."
"It's arduous, it's anxiety producing, it's stressful ... but it works," McNutt said.
Commissioner Marcia Jensen said the body would also appreciate clear entertainment and alcohol consumption policies, which are lacking in the town.
"If you see us struggle with , or Gardino's ... or the wine bar ... [it's because] we have policies that are in flux.
"I appreciate that you appreciate our input," Jensen said referring to comments from council members thanking commissioners for their work. "However, if we are giving that input in a vacuum, then we have no power.
"Now the planning commission is struggling, because we have no power," Jensen continued. "And we're being asked to make recommendations ... in the absence of policies."
To Jensen's comment, Los Gatos Mayor Joe Pirzynski asked, "So you want out?"
Jensen indicated she didn't "want out," just clearer policies.
Rice echoed McNutt's feelings that the vetting of such permits by both bodies, regardless of the outcome, makes for better projects.
But "it's not a perfect system," Rice conceded.
Commissioner Charles Erekson said the inexperienced public views approvals by the lower body, which are then denied by the higher body, as "pre-emptive actions."
Erekson then regretted how after their approval of Gardino's expansion, without any warning from the higher body or its staff, Town Manager Greg Larson was preparing changes to the downtown permit policy.
"We weren't given any context ... so the human beings on the planning commission could experience that as a pre-emptive action by the council. I don't believe it was intended to be that way," Erekson said.
He then said that although he felt the commission has clear direction about corporate and independent retailers, he's not as clear about the mix of uses to provide vibrancy to the downtown.
Then discussion turned to the 5,300-square-foot , 23-25 No. Santa Cruz Ave., which opened in September 2007 in the heart of downtown.
Who allowed the Apple store to come the downtown? The commission, answered commissioner Joanne Talesfore. "We took a lot of heat for that ... but we made the right decision."
Talesfore said her colleagues were shocked and surprised, because they had no warning that the council would change the permit policy.
She also said there's a lack of communication between the bodies and that even some sort of written memo letting the commission know when the council would be reversing one of its decisions would be appreciated.
"You're the boss," one commissioner said. Pirzynski replied, "Never forget it." Laughter followed.
Jane Ogle, the newest member on the commission, agreed with Talesfore that communication is important. "I don't personally feel like I get clear understanding of why you do things and make decisions ... that would be really be helpful and instructive for me."
Commissioner John Bourgeois lamented that the bodies never had a retreat to help them discuss best practices while he served as commission chairman in 2010.
Larson said a study was done for the Apple store case that covers a portion of downtown that led to the so called "80-20 rule," meaning 80 percent of downtown retailers are independent and 20 percent of retailers are corporate. However, those lose standards haven't been updated since.
"We don't have a good definition of what it is that makes it such a special downtown that even through this recession has had the lowest vacancy rates compared to Palo Alto," Larson said. "We have a great thing here, and we need to keep it going."
Larson said a complete study of downtown uses will be available for planners and council members by August detailing each property in the so-called central business district by square footage, street, frontage and lot size.
Councilman Steve Leonardis, in a typical conciliatory and gracious tone, praised council members and planners for their service to a town they both care deeply about. "[I] don't see any hierarchy" among the two bodies, he said.
Councilwoman Barbara Spector, sensing a need for more clear policies, asked when the alcohol and entertainment policies would be ready.
Wendie Rooney, director of the Los Gatos Community Development Department, said it's anticipated the policy could be ready by August or September.