When the Los Angeles City Council approves new condos, office towers and other forms of growth, should it know whether the city's troubled, aging infrastructure can take that extra load? And should city planners make those potentially troubling facts public by combining them all in a single report to the City Council each year?

Those are the questions before a California court, where L.A. environmental lawyers sued city leaders on behalf of more than a dozen community groups that say the City Council, bent on creating a far denser Los Angeles, is approving developers' projects in the dark.

The community groups lost an initial legal round early last year, and the case now is on appeal, with a decision expected this year.

But in some ways, it is already too late for Los Angeles' ancient infrastructure of decaying pipes, circa 1910, and roadways that in some areas have fallen behind on routine paving by 70 years.

“Every one of the hundreds of commercial and residential developments in the past 10 years has been approved by the City Council with no clear way for them to know if our infrastructure can handle them,” says Lucille Saunders of La Brea–Willoughby Coalition, the first group of L.A. residents to sue the city in 2008.

Several community groups and their lawyers say the City Charter — L.A.'s municipal constitution — requires the city planning department to create a comprehensive annual report on the state of the infrastructure for the City Council and, by extension, for the public.

And until 2000, that's the way it was, thanks to a long-ago fight by neighborhood and community groups that sought a single go-to report on the state of the city's water pipes, sewage lines, power grid and roadways. Their efforts eventually required the city planning department to provide the annual report as part of a so-called Framework Element, a set of laws that oversees growth and development.

But in 2000, as Mayor Richard Riordan departed office and Mayor James Hahn took over, then–city Planning Director Con Howe overrode the carefully hammered-out practice.

Community leaders and their attorneys say Howe, now retired, unilaterally tossed out a constitutional mandate within the City Charter.

After Howe put the kibosh on the annual reports, massive new housing and commercial projects were constructed during the Los Angeles construction bubble. Some critics now say the City Council is flirting disastrously with maxing out L.A.'s underlying infrastructure.

After Howe retired, no subsequent city planner — not Gail Goldberg or current City Planner Michael LoGrande — resumed the publicly released infrastructure reports.

Instead, they're now arguing in court against them.

Howe wrote, as part of the city's response to the 2008 lawsuit (Saunders, et al., v. City of Los Angeles, et al.), filed by attorneys Sabrina Venskus and Doug Carstens on behalf of L.A. residents, that he had problems with the “format and utility” of the annual infrastructure report.

Venskus says it's absurd that a hired city manager such as Howe could be allowed to override a mandate worked out by residents and approved by the City Council, saying that the planning department's “Trust us, we know what we're doing” presumption just doesn't fly legally.

Some would say the planning department in Los Angeles — infamous for overriding existing zoning to serve land speculators and politically connected developers — is an oxymoron.

Says Venskus: “The Planning Department is supposed to be in the service of the City Council, not the other way around.”

Hundreds of developments have been green-lighted under Hahn and Mayor Villaraigosa without the annual report.

In 2008, unable to locate the infrastructure report for a proposed retail-residential development at La Brea Avenue and Willoughby Street, near where she lives, Saunders sued on behalf of the La Brea–Willoughby Coalition.

Its suit calls for a moratorium on all new development until the planning department resumes the public infrastructure reports.

Saunders has since been joined by a dozen homeowners' and community groups, including watchdog group Fix the City.

“We have the worst cut-through traffic of any area of the city,” Westchester resident John Fisher said at an L.A. Department of Transportation meeting with the Westchester Neighborhood Council. But city planners envision dramatic new density surrounding the area.

The lawsuit alleges that the city's failure to provide annual reports also violates a core requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act.

However, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich argues that the annual report requirement is a suggestion, not a mandate, and that infrastructure information can somehow be gleaned from hundreds of city website pages — should anybody try hard enough to dig out that data.

He claims that a clause in the Framework Element of the City Charter, which says the report's publication is “contingent on the availability of adequate funding,” means the report is not required.

Trutanich argues — ludicrously, to some — that since 2000 the huge city planning department hasn't had enough money to produce annual infrastructure reports.

City Hall watchers will find this a tired trope, which the planning department also uses to justify cutting down on community input and its failing to assert stronger administrative muscle over questionable developments.

Following the department's “budgetary shortfall” claims last year, it promoted its “Community Development Overlay Ordinance” to cut down the project approval process citywide, a potential new boon for developers.

John Walker offered this opposing view on behalf of the Studio City Neighborhood Council: “Reducing time lines and saving staff time is not acceptable when it comes at the expense of the community.”

Nearly a year ago, Judge John Torribio agreed with the city that its charter does not require the comprehensive annual infrastructure report. Venskus filed an appeal in April, and a ruling is expected early this year.

Retired senior city planner Jane Blumenfeld argued to the court that, although the annual reports were dropped after 2000, she did monitor and track commercial, housing and retail development through 11 city departments. “The data is easily accessible, it is simply handled by different departments,” Blumenfeld says.

But it's a far cry from the hard-fought right to a transparent report on infrastructure won by Los Angeles residents years ago, then jettisoned by Con Howe.

Former city planner Dick Platkin says that before Howe nixed the reports, creating the public document was not even in the realm of being a budget-breaker for the 240-person planning department. It was written by one employee, Scott Rittenhaus, who “researched and wrote the last three reports, with the help of his supervisor [Robert Mullens], who edited it.”

The current planning staff has even found time and resources to write up a long report called “Doing More With Less.”

Mike Eveloff, president of the Tract 7260 Homeowners Association in West Los Angeles, one of the petitioners, says there's a mountain of law supporting the appeal: “There's case after case saying that budgetary shortfalls are no excuse for an agency's failure to perform a mandatory duty,” for example.

Eveloff says of the city planning department, “It's not their job to reinterpret the law, or to say, sorry we just can't do this anymore, or sorry, we don't want to.”

Venskus adds: “This case is really about making the city do what it said it would do back in the '90s, when the council members realized they didn't know what was going on in terms of infrastructure.”

Reach the writer at smorris@ laweekly.com.

LA Weekly