Petaluma Scraps Planning Department

Petaluma, California is known statewide (and even nationally) as the first city to adopt growth controls in 1972. Now, its scrapping its planning department citing the lack of development activity. According to the local newspaper, the Press-Democrat,

By a 4-2 vote, the City Council agreed to lay off the remainder of its already downsized staff, saying development was not generating enough fees to support it.

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said looming budget deficits of $1 million this year and $3.5 million next year left few other choices. “We have to balance our budget at the end of the year and it’s going to come out of someone’s hide,” she said before voting with the majority.

In 1972, Petaluma, which is north of San Francisco in Sonoma County, capped the number of building permits at 500, or about half the number approved in previous years. In 1998, the city approved an urban growth boundary. The current population of the city is about 55,000. From Wikepedia (accessed April 29, 2009)

Petaluma pioneered the time-controlled approach to development. Because of the region’s soaring population in the sixties, the city enacted the “Petaluma Plan” in 1971. This plan limited the number of building permits to 500 annually for a five year period beginning in 1972. At the same time Petaluma created a redbelt around the town as a boundary for urban expansion for a stated number of years. Similar to Ramapo, New York, a Residential Development Control System was created to distribute the building permits based on a point system conforming to the city’s general plan to provide for low and moderate income housing and divide development somewhat equally between east and west and single family and multi-family housing.

The stated objectives of Petaluma’s time controlled growth management were to ensure orderly growth; to protect the city’s small town character and surrounding green space; to provide a variety of housing choices; and to maintain adequate water supply and sewage treatment facilities.

While some may chalk this up to the housing depression, giving the planning department the ax is a long-term management move, not a simple matter of downsizing. It’s remarkable that a city this size would no longer feel the need for a planning department. Yet, if long-term growth is no longer an issue, what’s the point in keeping planners on staff?

Some in Petaluma may actually see this as a sign of success.