California: Codes, Corruption And Consensus

Two Tree Hill, Ventura, CA.jpg

We Californians like collaboration. Before we do things here, we consult all of the “stakeholders.” We have hearings, studies, reviews, conferences, charrettes, neighborhood meetings, town halls, and who knows what else. Development in some California cities has become such a maze that some people make a fine living guiding developers through the process, helping them through the minefields and identifying the rings that need kissing.

Here’s an example. This is a (partial?) list of the groups who will have a say on any proposed project in my city, Ventura:

  • City agencies (Planning, Engineering, Flood Control, Traffic, Building & Safety, Utilities, Police, Fire)
  • Historic Preservation Committee
  • Parks and Recreation Committee
  • Design Review Committee
  • Planning Commission
  • City Council
  • School District
  • Neighborhood and Community Councils
  • No-Growth Citizen Groups
  • Chamber of Commerce
  • Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
  • California Department of Fish and Game
  • United States Department of Fish and Wildlife
  • Ventura County Local Agency Formation Committee (discretionary authority regarding annexations)
  • Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (new MS4 Stormwater Permit issues)
  • Ventura County Environmental Health
  • California Coastal Commission (for some projects within the Coastal Zone)
  • California Native American Heritage Commission and Designated Most Likely Descendant of local tribe
  • United States Army Corps of Engineers
  • Natural Resources Defense Council, Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Bay, other environmental groups
  • And all parties who have requested to be on notice, as well as the general public and other agencies, will be informed of any California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) document.

I didn’t pick Ventura because it is the most difficult. It’s not. I think Ventura is pretty typical for a coastal California city, actually.

The result of having all these stakeholders is that, in many California communities, particularly those in coastal and upscale locations, everyone has a veto on everything. At the beginning of a project the developer faces a huge amount of uncertainty about what the project will look like once it gets past the gauntlet and about the cost of the development process. Add to that uncertainty about who will demand what, how long the approval process will take, market conditions and the regulatory environment when the project is completed, if it is completed.

This is where the corruption connection comes in.

In economics, we teach that there are two types of corruption, centralized and decentralized. Decentralized corruption is the more pernicious of the two.

Think of a city where organized crime has a successful protection racket. This would be centralized corruption. The mob is going to collect from everyone, but it has an incentive not to collect too much. It doesn’t want to draw too much attention to itself or chase the business out of town.

By contrast, decentralized corruption consists of a bunch of independent gangs, each trying to collect all they can before the next group of thugs comes along. Each gang of thugs will demand and collect too much, and chase the business out of town.

Of course, if you want to develop a property in California no one will hold a gun to your head and demand money, and everyone is way too polite to call it extortion. Certainly, no group thinks of itself as a mob of corrupt gangsters. Instead, the members think of themselves as stakeholders, and they hold delays, lawsuits, or project denial to your head. The results are the same.

First, you have to meet everyone, and everyone wants something in return for support, or for refraining from opposition. Groups will demand “mitigation fees,” delays, studies and more studies, and changes in the project. You will meet their demands, or you will be sued, or the project will be denied.

Time spent on meetings, studies, and negotiations is expensive. The cost of the local “guide,” necessary to get through the local maze, is expensive. The “mitigation fees” are expensive. Delays are expensive. Studies are expensive. Changes in the project are expensive. Lawsuits are expensive. And risk is expensive.

Eventually, the project is no longer profitable. No wonder California’s unemployment rate is 30 percent above the United States unemployment rate.

The current climate provides California’s local governments with their best economic development opportunity: Eliminate the legal extortion by guaranteeing a project’s prompt approval if it meets existing general plans, specific plans, zoning, building codes, and adopted design criteria. Any community that did this would see immediate increased economic activity. To steal a phrase from a famous economist, it is the closest thing to a free lunch.

A city does outreach before it develops its zoning and community design plans. It only adds to the cost of development to require builders to go through the entire process again, fighting the same battles, every time a project is proposed.

The best thing about this idea is that it has been tried, and it works. The City of San Diego has seen an amazing-for-California energy since its redevelopment agency implemented such a plan several years ago. In the worst economy in 50 years, San Diego has been building and providing commercial and housing projects for all economic levels in its downtown area. It is time for the rest of California to get on with it.

Bill Watkins is a professor at California Lutheran University and runs the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting, which can be found at

Photo: Two Tree Hill, Ventura California by Joseph Liao (Chowee).