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Hearing officer to speed building

Patrick McCartney

Lake Tahoe’s short building season has always complicated the task of builders, who must sometimes wait two months before receiving a hearing before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s governing board.

On Wednesday, though, the board agreed to make life easier for some developers, voting to delegate their authority to approve non-controversial projects to a hearing officer.

Holding hearings every two weeks, a hearing officer will streamline the permit application process without any loss of environmental safeguards, said Rick Angelocci, head of the agency’s project review section.

“I think it will speed up project approvals and free up a lot of our staff time,” Angelocci said.

The agency’s board currently reviews about 80 – or 7 percent – of the 1,100 project applications processed by the TRPA. But the small number of cases that go before the board consume 35 to 40 percent of his staff’s time as they prepare reports for the board, Angelocci said.

Jim Baetge, the agency’s executive director, said he will probably appoint a senior member of the TRPA staff as the hearing officer. The agency will send hearing notices to neighboring property owners and those requesting agency agendas. Interested parties will also be allowed to appeal the decision of the hearing officer to the governing board.

Angelocci said it is unclear how many of the 80 projects the governing board now reviews will be delegated to the hearing officer. Fees charged to applicants will be less for projects reviewed by the hearing officer than by the full board.

Board members questioned the hearing process to assure themselves that it would not result in a loss of protection for Lake Tahoe. But most members expressed strong support for streamlining the permit process for routine projects, saying the reduction in time applicants wait for approval will make the agency friendlier to basin residents.

“During the building season, the board meets only four or five times,” said El Dorado County Supervisor John Upton, the county’s representative on the agency’s board. “That places a tremendous pressure on applicants.”

Larry Sevison, who represents Placer County, said a hearing officer with extensive knowledge of the agency’s regulations can evaluate projects more efficiently than the governing board.

“There’s a tremendous amount of education going on here,” Sevison said, referring to the agency’s board. “A staff person doesn’t have to be educated. We may take two hours to hear an item, but a staff person already familiar with the rules may take five to 10 minutes.”

Councilman Hal Cole of South Lake Tahoe said appearing before a hearing officer will be less expensive and less intimidating for basin builders.

“It’s a real step forward,” Cole said.

The governing board now reviews housing projects larger than four units, but a hearing officer will now review housing projects that generate fewer than 200 vehicle trips a day, about 10 to 15 units. For now, the hearing officer will review commercial projects involving fewer than 2,500 square feet, but a few board members supported raising that limit.

The board will review the pilot program at the end of the building season, and judge its success partly based on the number of appeals filed by frustrated applicants and project opponents.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe endorsed the streamlining proposal, on the condition that the league will be notified of all hearings and have the right to appeal decisions it disputes.

And the addition of a hearing officer should give developers fewer headaches, said Gary Midkiff, a building consultant.

“It’s badly needed,” Midkiff said. “It will make the process move more quickly and make it user-friendly. We won’t have to wait six or eight weeks for a board meeting.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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