L.A. May Say Good-bye to EIRs and public notice
Only one week after it was green-lighted on Nov. 3 by the city Planning and Land Use Committee, the "Community Plan Implementation Overlay" ordinance was approved, in 10 minutes, by the Los Angeles City Council on a vote of 12-to-0 last Wednesday.
The hyper-rushed ordinance sets in motion the machinery for director of planning Michael LoGrande to roll over 35 Community Plans that contain hard-fought standards to protect all local neighborhoods in L.A. from overdevelopment and outsized buildings.
Passage of the ordinance — and the hurried manner in which the normally glacially slow 15-member City Council squelched all public comment last week — is the first shot across the bow in a plan, announced in a 2008 Planning Department report, to gut the L.A. zoning code.
Two speaker cards were submitted in opposition on Nov. 10: one by Laura Lake of Save Westwood Village, and one by Cary Brazeman of L.A. Neighbors United.
Neither was allowed to speak on behalf of the public, thanks to a procedural stunt pulled by Eastside District 1 City Councilman Ed Reyes.
Reyes moved that the City Council adopt the ordinance "by consent" — closing off any possible public criticism.
A recent study showed that the City Council votes unanimously 99.993 percent of the time. It did so once again, with Richard Alarcon, Tony Cardenas, Janice Hahn, Jose Huizar, Paul Koretz, Paul Krekorian, Tom LaBonge, Bernard Parks, Jan Perry, Ed Reyes, Bill Rosendahl and Greig Smith all voting yes without subjecting themselves to a word of anger from the audience.
The 2008 plan to "overhaul" the city's zoning code involves six to nine code studies and accompanying ordinances.
Frustrating many of the city's 88 neighborhood councils, Planning Department staff and the City Council are rolling out details of their sweeping plan piecemeal, and quietly. As a result, few Angelenos knew of its existence.
In an Oct. 4 letter to the Planning Department, the Studio City Neighborhood Council warned: "As the project is being implemented in six segments, commencing with this first ordinance, it is impossible for the public to evaluate the revised ordinance because there is no way to determine from this document the scope and impact of the entire project."
The Studio City group says that by revealing only bits and pieces of the rapidly developing citywide makeover, "This is a violation of the CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and it renders the MND [Mitigated Negative Declaration] meaningless."
Another neighborhood group, the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council, complained at a crowded forum held on Nov. 11 by the Valley Association of Neighborhood Councils that it has been left out of many of the Planning Department's notifications.
The city's chief planner, LoGrande, was present at the Valley meeting — and he attributed the gaffes to contact lists that hadn't been updated.
This was the same excuse tendered by then–principal city planner Jane Blumenfeld two years ago, when the L.A. City Council shoved through its controversial pro-developer Bonus Density Implementation Ordinance — swaths of which were held to be illegal and were undone by the California courts.
LoGrande was appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to head the Planning Department after city planner Gail Goldberg left this year. Villaraigosa's selection raised eyebrows, particularly since LoGrande has no training or background in planning, and the mayor had failed to conduct a serious search to fill the powerful and sensitive job.
LoGrande was the longtime city zoning administrator whose department approved 90 percent of applications from people seeking variances or conditional-use permits to build bigger apartment complexes, office towers, houses and other structures than were allowed under zoning protections.
His department's record helped cement L.A.'s reputation, once famously decried by Goldberg, as a developer-run city where zoning protections are flouted and exceptions are the rule.
The new ordinance could lead to buildings with at least 20 percent more density and parking than permitted by local zoning codes.
But the greater issue is that the ordinance hastily approved by the City Council last week sets the stage to wipe out a long-standing legal and social contract between City Hall and L.A.'s dwellers: It does so by removing many requirements for public notices, public hearings and Environmental Impact Reports, which allow Angelenos to question what is happening or fight back.
The plan the City Council approved is, in fact, a shrine to the rule of exceptions.
It creates a new layer of bureaucracy that would "overlay" the Community Plans by creating special administrative districts — Community Plan Implementation Overlay districts — in which the Planning Department will have exclusive jurisdiction, trumping neighborhood councils and anyone from the community.
This first of at least six anticipated ordinances to be approved piecemeal also may have been the most stealth legislation to sweep through Los Angeles City Hall in recent memory.
From Oct. 3, when the language was approved by City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, it took only six weeks for the proposal to become law.
Studio City Neighborhood Council President John Walker told the Weekly it would have been absurd for his group to comment to the City Council. His organization had only one week, yet it needed at least 60 days to review the ordinance responsibly — and he says even the best and the brightest can't figure out what it means, or why it's needed.
"We have a very proactive organization in Studio City," Walker explains, "and we couldn't even keep up with it."
The Planning Department, in an October report, said the ordinance is needed to help expedite the cumbersome updating of Community Plans every five years. The Planning Department is woefully behind — by up to 20 years in some communities.
But Sharon Commins, vice chair of the Mar Vista Community Council, asks, "Is adding another layer of bureaucracy supposed to make updating the Community Plans more efficient? Why don't they just update the Community Plans instead?"
Reyes argued last week that the Planning Department is hampered because its staff has been slashed by 40 percent over the past five years.
But even when the department was fully staffed five years ago, it failed to update numerous Community Plans, some for 15 years.
There may be something more sinister at work than benign City Hall ineptitude aggravated by hard times. Reyes insisted the ordinance "doesn't change anything — it's just a tool."
But this tool will implement the next, far more draconian "Core Findings Ordinance," scheduled to be heard before the Planning Commission on Jan. 13. The two ordinances, in conjunction, could turn out to be a concerned community's nightmare.
The current system requires that developers or home-owners seeking zoning variances and exceptions do so in public, where their request is denied or approved by an area Planning Commission.
The new overlay districts provide a structure to eliminate those protective vetting requirements. The geography of each new overlay district will be proposed by the Planning Department, followed by a Planning Commission hearing and final approval of the new district by a City Council that almost always votes unanimously.
Once that happens, says land-use attorney and consultant Brad Rosenheim, neighborhoods inside an overlay district will have no recourse to challenge edicts of the Planning Department.
The new overlay districts will turn LoGrande into a land czar with full authority to approve new building projects. His department could grant an administrative, executive "clearance" without a hearing, notice or EIR.
The ordinance does require that executive clearances be consistent with local zoning codes but modestly so. Two biggies — density and parking — are not included in the list of zoning definitions developers must obey, and the Planning Department may grant an automatic "adjustment" allowing buildings up to 20 percent larger than those permitted by zoning.
Before Nov. 10, an EIR was required if a developer sought a project size increase 10 percent bigger than allowed by zoning. That EIR protection is now history.
Studio City Neighborhood Council's Walker asks, "What's the point of buying a home in the city when nothing is protected?"
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