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L.A. Citizens Stop $500 Fee on Neighbors Who Challenge Developers

It doesn’t happen often, and all of the details have yet to be ironed out, but outraged community activists appear to have won a battle with the Los Angeles City Council.

Peeved at the less-than-transparent ways of downtown politicians, including District 1 City Councilman Ed Reyes, who chairs the Planning and Land Use Management Committee, environmental justice groups, homeowner associations and neighborhood councils joined forces to stop the passage of a steep new fee hike charged to those who want to oppose developments in their area. Opponents of the hike said the fee increase, which was considered at a City Council meeting on Tuesday, was far too costly and was pushed through City Hall without proper public input.

“Everyone said we did not receive notice” that existing fees paid by citizens who challenge development plans were about to be doubled, or in some cases sextupled, from $74 to as much as $500, says Daniel Wright, a land-use and environmental attorney and board member of the Mount Washington Homeowners Alliance. “It was the crux of how this thing got so hot.”

Wright and other community activists such as Hollywood Highlands Democratic Club Vice-President Bob Blue, were alarmed that the City Council was thinking about jacking up “planning appeal” fees for ordinary citizens — while decreasing and capping those same fees for real-estate developers.

Wright and Blue say that boosting the appeals fee from $74 to $150 for citizens living within 500 feet of a development project, and from $74 to $500 for those residing outside that range, would dramatically curtail citizen involvement in fighting bad developments.

“This is an important service of the city that preserves participatory government,” says Wright.

“By trying to quiet citizens,” adds Blue, “you’re creating a government for the rich.”

Planning appeals are used by people to voice concerns about everything from strip malls to skyscrapers, in the hope that Planning Department officials will then require the developers to make the proposals more neighborhood-friendly.

“Appeals often occur because [development projects] haven’t been properly vetted with the community or they have problems,” says Wright. “The overwhelming number of appeals result in a better project and improve the quality of life in the city.”

But to get to that point, Angelenos still have to go through a costly and time-consuming process that involves paying the appeal fees, taking time off work to attend appeal hearings — almost always held during the day — and constantly talking with Planning Department officials, City Council members and their aides.

“The system already seems to favor developers,” says Blue, who regularly attends appeals hearings as a Hollywood community activist. “It’s so one-sided. It’s kind of scary right now, and [an appeals fee hike] would have made it worse.”

Community activists made such a stink at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, though, that council members backed down. Instead, they plan to study the issue further.

At press time, Wright expected council members to vote to lower and then cap the appeal fees paid by developers but retain the $74 charge for average citizens who want to challenge a project.