San Juan County permit woes result in director firing - Salish Current
May 12, 2023
San Juan County permit woes result in director firing
Nancy DeVaux

Building in San Juan County can be complicated, with high percentages of parcels with wetlands, wildlife, critical areas or other considerations — and the county will have a new development director helping homebuilders and others sort all that out. The council voted last week to terminate its relationship with the department head. A vista on Lopez Island spans ponds, pasture, forest and housing. (Salish Current file photo)

May 12, 2023
San Juan County permit woes result in director firing
Nancy DeVaux

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Saying “the vision for the department does not align,” San Juan County issued a public statement on May 5 that “a decision to part ways” was made with Community Development Director Dave Williams. 

The abrupt termination came after an executive session on May 5 by the county council to evaluate the performance of a public employee. When the council returned to public session at the end of the day, they simply voted “to adopt the plan of the county manager”. 

The following Tuesday, the county announced Williams’ departure. Communication coordinator Erin Wygant said in an email, “Regarding (County Manager) Mike Thomas’ plan, the current task is to set up Mark Tompkins (Health and Community Services Director) as the interim DCD director with support from other key staff. Recruitment for a new director is already underway.”

The executive session was scheduled following an update to the council by Williams on the status of the department on May 2. Williams presented information about the permit process, including the number of active permits and the length of time that the review process has been taking. He described improvements that were instituted in the last two months.

‘Challenging’

Frustration with the department had been growing.

In an email to constituents in March, county council member Jane Fuller of Lopez wrote, “Since I started in the role of county council member for District 3 in the beginning of January, I have received numerous complaints from individuals, not-for-profits involved in construction, contractors and trades people about how challenging it is to work with this department these days and the impact of delays in getting both information and permits.” 

 She continued, “the county manager, Mike Thomas, has been literally inundated with complaints which is what precipitated his meeting with a group of industry practitioners on San Juan Island twice in the past few weeks.” 

The San Juan Builders Association (SJBA) organized several community meetings attended by members, Williams and Thomas. 

“A group of San Juan Island business people met with Mike Thomas, county manager and David Williams, planning director, to discuss difficulties we are experiencing in getting land-use permit approvals,” SJBA President Mike Carlson wrote describing the meeting on Feb. 27.

Carlson listed the issues discussed as: “courtesy and respect from planning staff to the public, staff training, consistency of code interpretations, prompt communication (return emails and phone calls promptly), use of a clearly defined list of critical area reports that supplement applications, and other submittals in the pre applications stage, staff acceptance of reports from licensed professionals.” 

Williams, in a group email to the builders and others, responded, “I wanted to take a moment and reach out to everyone on the list since the voice of Community Development has yet to be heard in these discussions. We have been made aware in the last several weeks of concerns with processing of permits and questions over the codes. I would like to address these points and let you know what we are doing to improve the services of the department. With regards to permits, our current processing time on land use is averaging four months. This is down from six months when we first heard of concerns six weeks ago. These improvements are due to internal processing changes.”

Staff shortages also played a role in permit delays and well as having new planners who have not had consistent training, he wrote.

Encumbrances

At the May 2 update on the department, Williams told the council about changes being implemented in permit and review processes, such as weekly staff trainings. 

He also emphasized that there are few easily developable parcels in the county. Of the 17,000 total parcels, he said, 56% have critical areas, 60% have federal wildlife regulations, 25% have possible archaeology and 47% have wetlands. 

“There are major encumbrances on almost every single lot,” Williams said.

Questions by council member Fuller in that meeting foreshadowed the subsequent action that would terminate the relationship with Williams. “What do you understand to be the bigger picture of a building industry in our county that is pretty important and vital to our economy, and to individuals who are trying to build homes and to organizations trying to build affordable housing?” she asked. “Please tell me what you understand to be the problems they are experiencing?”

Williams replied that he understood the issue was the “turnaround times”; also, “the level of detail that our codes require on the sites they are choosing to build on.”

Culture question

Fuller said she had heard from almost “every single person” she had spoken with on this topic that the department is “exceptionally confused.” 

“What is the cultural ethos of the department?” Fuller asked. Williams responded that the department looks “to find the reason to say yes” and that “I believe we have consistency in plan review.”

Fuller said “Across the board, people are fearful of complaining because they don’t want to be treated punitively.” 

Williams responded that, “if we had someone taking retaliatory measures, I would take action to terminate them immediately.” 

Fuller reiterated, “clients don’t trust the fact that their permit won’t just fall to the floor.”

In public access time at the beginning of the March 2 meeting, several citizens spoke about the department. 

Tina Whitman, science director of Friends of the San Juans said, “From my perspective things are not that different now. Things are always cumbersome and slow during times of intense development pressure.” 

Whitman said that, in the 21 years she has worked for Friends, there have been 17 planning directors. She stressed the importance of regulations to protect the health of the environment, saying that, “with climate change these rules are even more important.”

‘A breakdown’

Sandy Bishop, executive director of Lopez Community Land Trust, urged the council to ”make your leadership count.” 

“What’s going on is a breakdown,” she said and described the department as one of “confusion, with no function at the department level.” She said that she was not opposed to regulations, but that “there has been no clear avenue to get consistent information.” She said that the department functioned at a higher level in the past when there used to be pre-applications meetings that helped applicants understand what was required. 

In its May 8 announcement, the county acknowledged that the current permit backlog is sizeable. “However, permits must be processed in accordance with all of the County’s adopted development codes and environmental regulations. DCD is committed to providing planning and permitting services in a responsive and respectful manner.”

The county also said appreciated the contributions Williams made during his tenure, which included the adoption of the comprehensive plan last year.

— Reported by Nancy DeVaux

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