The Cambridge Dictionary defines “Community Development “as the activity of working with the people from a particular area in order to try to improve their quality of life.”
But if you were to ask development professionals and some of the five different litigants suing Chelan County over obstructive tactics and unnecessary delays in their projects’ permit applications, you would find solid consensus that Chelan County’s Community Development Department (CCCDD) has done everything BUT work with them.
Litigants and development professionals cite excessive staff and management turnover within the department, an absence of effective leadership from the county commissioners, an absence of any shared vision or mission, and employee bias and prejudice as causes for a dysfunctional Community Development department.
But beyond procedural bottlenecks and procedural inefficiencies, some litigants claim outright staff interference and obstruction of permit applications.
Ben Alworth, in a Wheeler Ridge LLC press release dated Feb. 7, 2020, regarding alleged Chelan County interference to delay an orchard development project, says “County staff has repeatedly interfered with our proposed project including providing misleading and false permitting information, omitting application materials to reviewing agencies and taking years to issue decisions that County code and state law require to be issued in a matter of weeks. We’ve bent over backward to seek assistance and to be responsive to the County.“
The problems with CCCDD are not limited to proposed projects but also extend to long time Chelan County businesses like Karma Vineyards, in Chelan. Julie Pittsinger, Karma’s owner, is also suing CCCDD, stating it has repeatedly changed its position and interpretation of code and permits causing significant financial losses to her company. Says Pittsinger: “an ever-changing staff and management at the department results in inconsistent code interpretation, delayed decision making and a sense that no decision is ever final. It’s impossible to build a business model with that kind of treatment by Community Development.”
Larry Scrivanich, representing Tamarack Saddle LLC, has been working since 2015 on permitting for an expansion project at Mission Ridge. He, too, is part of the group with mounting claims against Chelan County. Tamarack contends County staff has not followed county code and State law in the conduct of the permitting process. “Established timelines have not been followed, completion dates have not been met, basic noticing requirements have been ignored, interpretations and opinions of County staff are always changing, and County staff has collaborated with opposition groups exposing a clear bias and conflict of interest,” say Scrivanich.
Excessive staff and management turnover is a major cause of the department’s dysfunction.
Wenatchee World reporter Tony Buhr, in an a Dec. 29 article, cited the loss of three planners, a building official, a building plans examiner, a senior planner, an assistant planner and a floodplain administrator — all within the last 12 months. And, there have been five different Community Development directors since 2015. The county currently has over 600 open code enforcement cases; as a result, the county is transferring Code Enforcement responsibility from Community Development to the Sheriff’s Office at a cost of $500,000.
Tsillian Cellers’ Dr. Bob Jankelson, a respected business leader with over 20 years experience dealing with the CCCDD, says “the deterioration of service and performance within the department has been obvious in recent years, caused by a constantly revolving door of personnel, the lack of a shared vision and mission for the department, and the lack of published performance standards. The effect has been to create tardy, haphazard and inconsistent decision-making by Community Development staff and has caused great damage to environmentally friendly development and limited our county’s economic vitality.”
Relatively speaking, few Chelan County residents ever interact directly with the Community Development department. So why should every Chelan County resident care? The legal costs and time of dealing with lawsuits, which could cost County taxpayers millions of dollars, are only part of the story. Delays in the issuance of permits, along with inconsistent and erroneous code interpretations, contribute to higher construction costs and the reduced availability of affordable housing. Given the choice, many builders and developers abandon Chelan County and build in Douglas County and beyond, where the path to project approval or a building permit is a more fair and predictable one. In short, the county’s economic vitality depends on a high functioning Community Development department.
If the CCCDD is indeed broken, what steps need to be taken to fix it? Recommended first steps are:
1. Chelan County commissioners must, with urgency, develop a plan with a timeline to transform the department into a highly functioning operation.
2. The CCCDD is critical to the long-term well being of our county, no different than the Sheriff, Elections, Auditor or Public Works departments. The commissioners must treat the CCCDD as an equal with other key departments within county government, not as a step-child.
3. A new vision and mission statement must be created — with broad public input — reflecting the department’s role in promoting responsible growth, economic development and the promotion of an enhanced quality of life for all Chelan County residents.
4. The reasons for the revolving door of management and staff must investigated and addressed. There is no reason why Chelan County can’t hire and retain the best and brightest professionals in this department.
5. Performance standards, with time requirements, should be established, and adhered to, for common activities within the department such as the issuance of building permits, project reviews and short plat approvals. The Community Development Department must improve its transparency by posting its performance against such standards.
6. No one wins in litigation, except the lawyers. The department, directed by its three commissioners, must make reasonable efforts to resolve the five lawsuits filed against it through negotiation and mediation rather than through courtroom litigation.
Chelan County residents deserve a highly functional Community Development department. They’re not getting it today; the future prosperity of Chelan County depends on it.
former Chelan County commissioner
Van Doren Sales
Dr. Bob Jankelson
Owner Hotel group