Photo by Jack GouldLast October, the Weekly reported that Pam Julien Houchen converted a Huntington Harbor apartment building into condominiums without a permit. Houchen, a real-estate agent and member of the HB City Council, made about $600,000 on the deal; she never declared ownership of the property in financial-disclosure forms filed at City Hall.
The Orange County district attorney's office declined to press charges, and the Huntington Beach city attorney is still investigating. But Houchen isn't waiting for the law to catch up with her innovative handling of planning law. Leveraging her place on the council, she's quietly trying to extend the same laissez faire policy—she calls it "streamlining"—to the rest of the development community.
Houchen's goal: kill the Planning Commission.
Houchen did not respond to telephone and e-mail requests for her comment for this story. But on Aug. 11, 2003, she wrote a letter to her council colleagues urging them to push forward with the so-called "streamlining" process.
"In times of budget reductions, staff cutbacks and tough economic times, I believe it is the appropriate time to revisit streamlining the entitlement process," Houchen wrote. "The continued effort to streamline and expedite the entitlement permit process will continue to benefit both the city as well as the private sector."
"This is another step in cutting the public out of the loop," said a city official who asked to not be identified. "Most people would never know about these projects, and the whole idea of having them go before the Planning Commission is to let the public know what's going on."
"We have to ensure that streamlining doesn't counter any of the gains that have been made with regard to involving the public," said Randy Kokal, a former planning commissioner. "I think there is probably an effort by some to cripple the Planning Commission. Some people want to eliminate it. A final consideration is whether or not the people enacting the [streamlining] ordinance would stand to financially benefit from enacting it."