*This article is from the September 6th newspaper.*
Solar farms, granny flats and legal marijuana have a lot in common. Seriously. Just ask Jim Minnick, director of Imperial County Planning and Development Services.
The solar farms are obvious—the county is dotted with sprawling fields of power-generating reflective panels and they have often been in the news. Granny flats? They are not so prominent, though they weigh on Minnick just the same.
“The laws have changed. California has chipped away at local authority making constraints” on adding dwelling units to single-family residential home sites, he explains. “Now the law is you can have multiple homes with the same parking. Now, when you’re adding density to areas you’re adding the need for parking and the roads may not be able to handle it.”
Previously, local jurisdictions such as Imperial County, could impose their own conditions on homeowners who wanted to add a cottage—often referred to as a granny flat because they were built to accommodate an older family member moving in—or convert part of a garage to an apartment.
A recent law set the standards for allowing that at the state level, Minnick added. The reasoning was to create more affordable housing in a state now legendary for just the opposite. While Minnick concedes he is not opposed to the concept, he worries over time adding dwellings will crowd parking and shorten the life of street pavement.
“If I were to get another subdivision the question is how will we handle the area’s plan? (And for existing residential areas) retrofit areas to accommodate, expand to create secondary homes on the property. It’s going to be interesting how jurisdictions do that,” Minnick added.
The granny flats fall within the department’s traditional purview—permitting new structures and additions to existing structures in the county’s vast unincorporated areas. That includes permitting the vast solar farms.
“Our building section does building permits and mobile home park oversight. We do things beyond planning and building (such as) land use, planning and zoning, subdivisions, conditional use permits,” he said.
Describing the geographic area for which his department is responsible, Minnick quipped it is analogous to Swiss cheese, “We are the cheese and the cities are the holes in the cheese.”
Starting with the department as a planner in 1997, Minnick worked his way up the ranks and was named director in 2014. He oversees a staff of 35, including six planners, five building inspectors, and about two dozen support staff.
If the state threw municipal planners a curve ball with the granny flat law, state voters served up a knuckler with Proposition 64 in 2016 that legalized recreational use of marijuana effective Jan. 1, 2018. Minnick’s department is tasked with oversight of legal cannabis producers and distributors in the county’s unincorporated area.
Conceding he is not a fan of the law, Minnick added, “ It is the law of the land in California and I can be unbiased in that regulation.”
He added, “We’re anticipating 16 applications for cannabis, five wholesale, five virtual and one physical medicinal. We’re in the process of permitting those.”
Asked if he thinks legal marijuana will be a tax windfall for municipalities, Minnick said, “We don’t know. Not until they start opening. Maybe an offset (to costs) rather than a generator. If your law enforcement calls go up, then the taxes are just offset. I don’t think that’s a cash cow.”
Next: Part 2 Renewable energy issues