Renata Sos Answers to Questions Posed by the Lamorinda Weeklysosadmin
Submitted to Lamorinda Weekly on September 8, 2020
1) One of the town council goals for 2020 was to enhance Moraga’s business environment and work collaboratively with the Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders, yet several stand-alone storefronts have remained empty for years, especially in the Moraga Shopping Center. Granted, COVID-19 has currently stymied any productive business environment, but what can the town do post-pandemic to fill the vacancies and prevent them in the future?
COVID-19 hit just as some of our efforts to attract and retain businesses in Moraga were yielding results. The ultimate impact on Moraga’s business community will depend on the length of the pandemic and the depth of its economic reverberations. There are things this community collectively can do to help our businesses weather the crisis and then rebuild. First, the Council recently authorized the Small Business Relief Program, which offers to reimburse our small businesses up to $2,000 for their COVID-related expenses, such as costs associated with providing their employees with personal protective equipment and modifying their spaces to allow for social distancing. Second, the Town already has and should continue to streamline and simplify local rules that apply to businesses, with an eye towards making it easier to start and maintain businesses in Moraga. And, finally, all of us in this community can do our part by thinking local when we purchase goods and services: buying from Moraga stores, getting take-out and gift cards from our restaurants, and hiring service providers that are based in our town.
2) The Moraga Center Specific Plan will bring many changes, not only to the Center area proper, but to the town as a whole. Are there any aspects of the MCSP that you personally have issues with; and if you could go back in time to 2010 during MCSP’s inception what would you change?
It is important for everyone to understand that the Moraga Center Specific Plan (MCSP) does not determine what will get built in the Moraga Shopping Center and surrounding areas; rather, it provides clarity to both property owners and public officials as to what is allowed to be built, subject always to compliance with current building and fire codes. The MCSP is the product of many years of citizen and stakeholder input, collaboration, and balancing of sometimes competing interests, leading to the plan’s adoption back in 2010. Given its breadth and complexity, everyone can find in the plan things they like, and things they don’t like. But at this point the MCSP is an established element of Moraga’s land use plan. The next critical step that must be taken is for the Town to adopt zoning rules that provide more specific guidelines regarding things like size, scale, setbacks, and the like, that any proposed development projects within the MCSP area must satisfy. This step is needed to provide clarity to the community, to property owners, and to the Town’s public officials who will consider proposed projects for approval. As a member of the Town Council that is about to be asked to consider those proposed zoning regulations, it is not appropriate at this point for me to express or apply my personal views about the MCSP’s merits. Rather, my job is to evaluate the proposed zoning ordinance in light of the framework and guidelines set out in the MCSP and the Moraga General Plan, the requirements imposed by California law, and the needs of our Town. If there were one thing about the MCSP process that I could change, it would be for the zoning to have been completed years ago, much closer to the MCSP’s original adoption, when memories of the considerations embodied in the MCSP were still fresh.
3) By the same token, what areas of the MCSP do you feel will most benefit the residents and the town as a whole?
The MCSP sets out a vision for a cohesive live/work/shop village in the Moraga center and the surrounding area. Having a single coherent plan for the entire 187-acre area covered by the MCSP is a significant benefit to the character and aesthetic of the Town because it provides one set of rules for future development in that area, allowing of course some flexibility to adapt to significant changes in market conditions. The alternative would be a piecemeal approach to development of that prominent and highly visible part of our Town, under which different and even conflicting rules would apply to each part of the MCSP area, potentially resulting in incompatible uses and an aesthetic hash. Clear, consistent and predictable rules that apply to any proposed development in the area benefit the land-owners, prospective developers, and our community, which cares deeply about maintaining our semi-rural feel.
Another benefit of the MCSP is that it provides the Town with a sensible way to meet the State of California’s recently-enacted legal mandates requiring all local communities to improve the diversity of their housing. It also creates an opportunity for our community to provide housing that is more accessible to our teachers, public safety officers, St. Mary’s students, and seniors. And by concentrating additional housing in a downtown area, the Town can better protect our remaining open space from unduly dense or overly intrusive development.
4) The town council meetings have a tendency to run long, although this past year has seen a gradual improvement in adjourning no later than 11:00 p.m. What are your suggestions for additionally streamlining the meetings while still accomplishing a completed agenda?
Meetings that run late into the night are hard on members of the public who are watching and on Town staff. On the other hand, the Council’s meetings need to accommodate public comment on important issues and allow time for the Council, in full view of the public, to consider, discuss, and deliberate the complex issues that come before it. The Council’s meetings are recorded and available for viewing at any time, so interested members of the public can finish watching meetings that are running late at another time. The Council recently has taken steps to improve its meeting process: for example, we move items of particular interest to the community to an earlier place on the agenda; we encourage Council members to ask any information questions they have for Town staff in advance of the meetings; we are limiting the number of questions Council members may ask during the meetings; and we are spending less time on Council member reports. Those measures seem to be working, and I’m in favor of retaining them. I am also in favor of looking for additional ways to make the meetings more efficient, such as enforcing time limits on presentations to the Council on topics that are not up for immediate consideration and action by the Council. However, we must make sure that any further streamlining of the meetings does not come at the expense of transparency, due deliberation, and thorough consideration by the Council of the issues before us.