Pete Parkinson has a quick way to sum up the tough work his now former office, Sonoma County's Permit and Resource Management Department, faces in overseeing land-use planning and regulation in the Bay Area's largest county.
"I've been describing it lately as trying to decide whether we're the Chamber of Commerce or the cops," Parkinson said. "In reality, of course, we are both. And often we are both at precisely the same time."
Parkinson knows well the disputed mission and its most hot-button issues, ranging from limits on medical marijuana dispensaries and endangered species protection to high-profile commercial developments and low-income housing policy.
"It's a pretty challenging job and it's a pretty unpopular job," Parkinson admitted.
The 59-year-old Bennett Valley resident retired last week as director of PRMD, a division created by the county in 1995 through the consolidation of five departments.
The move was seen at the time as a more efficient one-stop shop for contractors and property owners trying to shepherd building projects to approval. The experiment has largely worked, though it has never eliminated the stream of complaints about the heavy hand of county government in land-use decisions.
Parkinson says he understands the frustration. He was a Santa Cruz County planner when he joined PRMD in 1996. He became director in 2002. Though several parts of the department's work have changed dramatically since then, he said, the office's "core job" remains the same.
"We tell people what they can and cannot do with their property or their project," he said. "Nobody wants to get a permit to put on a new roof or put in a new water heater or even to remodel their house. The process is an inconvenience at best or a hassle at the worst."
Yet, he added, "there are some really good reasons for why we do what we do." Public health and safety are two prime examples, he said.
The need for oversight was highlighted three years ago, when a deck collapsed under a crowd of young people at a Guerneville-area vacation rental house, seriously injuring a teenage girl. The deck was built without permits and did not meet minimum building standards. It had as many as 80 people on it and a DJ's table when it broke.
"We're lucky there weren't more serious injuries with that," Parkinson said.
"When you have buildings and improvements that are built to code and properly inspected, it saves peoples' lives, it enhances the value of property and it enhances the community," he said.
Parkinson shared the comments in an interview days before he retired, assessing his tenure at PRMD, the long list of controversial issues, projects and initiatives the department has confronted and what may lie ahead for the often-embattled division of county government.
When he arrived, the office was "still trying to find its feet," he said. Now, nearly two decades on, even its strongest critics say they wouldn't go back to the old model, when an applicant had to shuttle a project through separate departments overseeing engineering, planning, building construction, sanitation and septic systems.
They have nevertheless lambasted what some see as a plodding, anti-business bias inside the department, questioning both Parkinson's leadership and the rising set of fees the county charges each year to recoup a greater share of its costs.