A proposal to allow neighborhood councils the right to appeal planning and land use decisions by the Los Angeles City Council has been winding its way through the Westside councils and appears to have picked up steam in recent months.

Venice Neighborhood Council President Mike Newhouse has appeared before several Westside advisory boards to seek support for what many feel is a worthwhile and logical tool to have when downtown politicians take positions that they believe are contrary to the best interests of their local communities.

“It’s important to have the right to appeal,” said Newhouse. “As neighborhood councils, our decisions don’t have any binding authority.”

Currently, only homeowner groups can appeal City Council land use and planning decisions, which leaves neighborhood councils, often the entities that are the most familiar with a particular development project or land use matter, with little or no recourse in the event that an unpopular decision is reached in downtown Los Angeles.

Newhouse said that the idea came to light following a series of meetings with the Westside Neighborhood Regional Alliance of Councils, a collective of 11 neighborhood and community councils from the Westside.

“We are speaking with one voice,” he said.

Steve Donnell, who chairs the land use and planning committee for the Neighborhood Council of Westchester-Playa, sees great potential in granting local councils this right.

“It certainly would be a great benefit,” said Donnell, a Playa Vista resident who is a senior vice president of Jalmar Properties, Inc., a property management firm. “Neighborhood councils are empowered to be the experts on issues in their own backyards.”

In recent months, the Planning Commission has been involved in land use decisions that have rankled some of the local boards on the Westside. On April 13th, the commission approved a mitigated negative declaration for a proposed 92-unit condominium project that would replace apartments at 3160-3178 S. Barrington Ave. in Mar Vista.

This decision was reached despite an earlier agreement last September between the Mar Vista Community Council, property owner Abraham Assil, and City Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office, which included a reduction in the number of units, along with a renovation and condominium conversion of the existing units.

In turn, the community council gave its consent to support a waiver from the city’s parking requirement of one-and-one-quarter spaces per dwelling unit, which equates to 60 spaces, and an additional one quarter space per dwelling unit, or 12 spaces, for guest parking.

A mitigated negative declaration is one of the mildest forms of environmental analysis under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Residents who live near the proposed condominium project picketed on April 23rd and the Westdale Homeowners Association appealed the commission’s approval, since the local council does not have the right to file appeals.

“(That proposal) is Exhibit A as to why neighborhood councils need to be able to appeal planning decisions,” Ken Alpern, a member of the Mar Vista council’s land use and planning committee, asserted. “I can’t imagine neighborhood councils being taken seriously without being able to appeal City Council decisions.”

But Donnell also thinks that this kind of authority should not be used capriciously.

“The danger is that if a neighborhood council is empowered with that ability and it offers knee-jerk reactions to a particular development, project or planning issue, that could be seen as detrimental,” he noted. “If there are specific guidelines such as legal and factual issues that can be presented, then it can absolutely be a good tool for neighborhood councils.”

Rosendahl said he supports his neighborhood councils in their quest to appeal specific planning outcomes. In April, the councilman backed a motion that would allow local boards to appeal commission findings regarding tentative tract and parcel maps, specific plan exceptions, conditional use permits and variances.

“I totally believe that neighborhood councils should have the right to appeal under these conditions,” Rosendahl told The Argonaut.

David Bohn, vice president of Parr-Bohn Properties in Del Rey, said that he is aware that at times governmental procedures pertaining to the approval of commercial or residential developments and other land use matters can be challenging.

“We know that the city often struggles with land use and planning issues,” said Bohn, who did not express an opinion on whether neighborhood councils should be able to appeal city rulings.

Another vote by the commission that angered environmentalists was a decision to list the Ballona Wetlands as a possible site that would be eligible for a sign district that is being considered as part of a newly restructured municipal sign ordinance.

Although city planning officials have stressed that there are certain provisions that would not permit an outdoor advertising company to install billboards within 500 feet of the wetlands, some who have been involved in the restoration of the ecological preserve would like to see it removed from city planning maps.

“Why would anyone even consider a billboard district on or near an ecological preserve?” asked Marcia Hanscom, co-director of the Playa del Rey-based Ballona Institute.

“(The Ballona Wetlands site) still has to come off the map.”

Bohn said that his and other real estate development companies seek only to be able to present their projects to an open-minded audience.

“As developers, what we want is an open and fair process,” Bohn told The Argonaut.

Rosendahl said that many neighborhood council land use and planning committees have been very diligent in their research of projects and land use matters in their own communities and have earned the trust of their constituencies.

“I believe very strongly that they have arrived at the point where their committees do their due diligence and are very knowledgeable in what kinds of developments that their communities want to see,” said the councilman.

Alpern said that without the ability to challenge certain land use findings, local councils cannot operate in the manner that they were conceived when they were created by the Los Angeles Charter in 1999.

“If neighborhood councils are to be considered a legitimate part of Los Angeles city government, it’s imperative that they have the ability to appeal planning decisions,” he said. “This proposal is long overdue.”

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