By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Pete Parkinson has a quick way to sum up the tough work his now former office, Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department, faces in overseeing land-use planning and regulation in the Bay Area’s largest county.
“I’ve been describing it lately as trying to decide whether we’re the Chamber of Commerce or the cops,” Parkinson said. “In reality, of course, we are both. And often we are both at precisely the same time.”
Parkinson knows well the disputed mission and its most hot-button issues, ranging from limits on medical marijuana dispensaries and endangered species protection to high-profile commercial developments and low-income housing policy.
“It’s a pretty challenging job and it’s a pretty unpopular job,” Parkinson admitted.
The 59-year-old Bennett Valley resident retired last week as director of PRMD, a division created by the county in 1995 through the consolidation of five departments.
The move was seen at the time as a more efficient one-stop shop for contractors and property owners trying to shepherd building projects to approval. The experiment has largely worked, though it has never eliminated the stream of complaints about the heavy hand of county government in land-use decisions.
Parkinson says he understands the frustration. He was a Santa Cruz County planner when he joined PRMD in 1996. He became director in 2002. Though several parts of the department’s work have changed dramatically since then, he said, the office’s “core job” remains the same.
“We tell people what they can and cannot do with their property or their project,” he said. “Nobody wants to get a permit to put on a new roof or put in a new water heater or even to remodel their house. The process is an inconvenience at best or a hassle at the worst.”
Yet, he added, “there are some really good reasons for why we do what we do.” Public health and safety are two prime examples, he said.
The need for oversight was highlighted three years ago, when a deck collapsed under a crowd of young people at a Guerneville-area vacation rental house, seriously injuring a teenage girl. The deck was built without permits and did not meet minimum building standards. It had as many as 80 people on it and a DJ’s table when it broke.
“We’re lucky there weren’t more serious injuries with that,” Parkinson said.
“When you have buildings and improvements that are built to code and properly inspected, it saves peoples’ lives, it enhances the value of property and it enhances the community,” he said.
Parkinson shared the comments in an interview days before he retired, assessing his tenure at PRMD, the long list of controversial issues, projects and initiatives the department has confronted and what may lie ahead for the often-embattled division of county government.
When he arrived, the office was “still trying to find its feet,” he said. Now, nearly two decades on, even its strongest critics say they wouldn’t go back to the old model, when an applicant had to shuttle a project through separate departments overseeing engineering, planning, building construction, sanitation and septic systems.
They have nevertheless lambasted what some see as a plodding, anti-business bias inside the department, questioning both Parkinson’s leadership and the rising set of fees the county charges each year to recoup a greater share of its costs.
On the other side, environmental and community activists have accused the department of inadequate oversight, suing to block several notable projects in recent years, including the Roblar Road quarry west of Cotati, the new Sutter hospital outside Santa Rosa and the Dutra asphalt plant in Petaluma. All three projects enjoyed overly permissive reviews, critics said.
Parkinson defended the department from both sides.
“I think for most land-use issues there is room for people to disagree about the outcome,” he said. “We try to set ourselves aside from the political maelstrom that is going on out there and apply science to it and cover the true facts, as they say.”
A recent focus on improved customer service has quieted the loudest complaints a bit.
“It was never the feeling in the construction world that it was a friendly place to do business, but they’re making improvements,” said Keith Woods, chief executive officer of the North Coast Builders Exchange, a Santa Rosa trade group.
“I applaud what Pete has been doing in his final days,” Woods said. “It’s been a rough go over a lot of years for a lot of people in the construction industry. But they appear to be straightening things out.”
The most dramatic changes in past 17 years, Parkinson said, include the “tremendous” growth in the number and complexity of land-use regulations — most of them state and federal — and the greater public involvement in all manner of planning and development decisions.
In Sonoma County, the projects that involve agriculture, tourism and natural resources tend to draw the most interest, he said.
Winery applications, for example, “are very seldom routine any more,” he said, with many now running a gauntlet of public hearings and court challenges.
The county’s “sophisticated populous” and growing concern about impacts on neighborhoods, water resources and wildlife are factors, he said.
“The other thing is that the easy development sites, to the extent there ever were any of them, are long gone. Siting something like a winery where you have special events, let alone a new quarry, or something like that, is extremely difficult,” he said.
Parkinson arrived in the county when many of the biggest battles over limiting sprawl and emphasizing city-centered growth were settled. For the county, the 1989 General Plan established many of the growth policies still in place; cities followed thereafter with their own growth boundaries.
Still, his tenure was marked by prolonged disputes over low-income housing policy, regulation of septic systems, limits on medical marijuana sales, protections for the California tiger salamander, an endangered species, and many other contentious topics.
The economic downturn, meanwhile, assured that his last years at the helm would be under a steadily dwindling staff. Hit by the crash in building permits and county budget cuts, the department shed 40 percent of its staff and saw a dramatic turnover in experienced employees.
“Any time an organization goes through the kind of downsizing we have without dropping any programs — the staff is feeling the strain of that,” Parkinson said. “I’d also say they are troopers.”
Parkinson said a key goal for his successor will be to begin adding back positions in several “threadbare” wings of the office, including engineering and building inspection.
Continuing the emphasis on improved customer service also will be important, he said.
“I don’t want to leave the impression that I think the negative perception of PRMD and permitting agencies in general is all about perception and not reality,” he said. “I think we can do better — find more streamlining tools, make it easier on applicants. There will always be work there. It’s something you can’t take your eyes off of.”
The Board of Supervisors is in the final stage of selecting his replacement. At the Aug. 20 board meeting, the last one before he stepped down, supervisors praised his service in a demanding post.
Parkinson faced “a tremendous workload,” said Chairman David Rabbitt. “You handled it with such grace, dignity and professionalism.”
Parkinson departed as the second-longest tenured department head in the county workforce, part of a five-year turnover that has extended from the Board of Supervisors and other elected offices down to many of the senior managers and rank-and-file staff.
“You’re one of the most steady hands we have here in the county,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire.
Parkinson said he plans to stick around in Bennett Valley, helping out in his son’s kindergarten class and volunteering as a reading tutor for elementary students. A former officer in state and national planning groups, he said he also hopes to stay active in the profession.
“I’ve been nearly 30 years in having a local government job and that’s a very well-defined thing,” he said. “It will be quite an adventure waking up (after retirement) and not having that.”