When neighborhood councils bend the rules to look tough on development, everybody loses

By Laurette Healey

The author of this opinion piece serves on the board of the Los Angeles Industrial Development Authority and is a former California deputy state controller who represented San Fernando Valley neighborhood councils at the mayor’s office during the James Hahn administration. She became involved in Venice planning issues as an advocate for the proposed redevelopment of Kim’s Market..

It is written that a small bite of an apple got us booted out of paradise. As unlikely as these events seem to our modern sensibilities, the timeless message of this parable serves as a potent reminder of how the mistreatment of power creates chaotic consequences.

To put this into a contemporary context, the escalating development of the charming eclectic community of Venice has, with some justification, aroused the ire of some of its longer-term residents. Yet, Venice has a complex cavalry of intensely vetted laws, ordinances and municipal codes that provide a permissible path for growth, and these laws should be commonly understood and observed in order for the community to avoid their voice being dismissed as ill-informed.

There has never been a greater need for visionary leadership in this community than now, and these circumstances present a ripe opportunity for the Venice Neighborhood Council to demonstrate an authentic commitment toward spearheading legally collaborative solutions. To navigate this route, the council must first and foremost understand the laws governing its authority over the development of Venice and then perform its fiduciary duty to educate the community about the applications of these rules.

The Venice Neighborhood Council and its subordinate Land Use and Planning Committee have sorely missed the mark on both of these scores. Sadly, their indifference toward these fundamental responsibilities will undoubtedly leave the community demoralized when all is said and done. Worse yet, this period will be seen as the moment when a misapplication of their privilege by a naïve disregard for the laws that govern them will be seen as the tipping point for a paradise lost.

Parking, traffic and noise rank among the top community concerns. Sensing this priority, the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee repeatedly seeks to placate a familiar crowd that shows up for monthly meetings by recommending denials of projects or calling for legally unenforceable parking, traffic or noise conditions for just about every development application it considers.

However, the law provides very explicit consent provisions on all of these points. Take parking: The Venice Coastal Zone Specific Plan for Beach Impact Zone Parking requires that a business must physically provide only half of the parking spaces required by LA’s municipal code, allowing instead for in-lieu payments of $18,000 per space into the Venice Coastal Parking Trust Fund to make up for a shortfall in spaces. What that fund is or isn’t doing with all that money is another story altogether, but the point is that a business is in full compliance with the law if it pays the fees and, whatever happens during the approvals process, the courts will eventually find in their favor.

The Venice Neighborhood Council and its Land Use and Planning Committee apparently prefers to mislead its stakeholders by issuing unenforceable recommendations to deny projects rather than risk the unpopular task of telling the truth to its constituents or committing itself to the real work this area desperately needs — legally enforceable collaborative solutions.

The council also routinely defies the California Environmental Quality Act by its continuous recommendations of denial for applications based on “presumed” increases in noise and traffic based on speculation by a project’s opponents. CEQA, however, requires that government bodies follow a legally transparent process when considering the traffic and noise impacts of a proposal. It expressly states that such speculation or opinion has no legal standing and explicitly bars denying or recommending a denial on such basis.

What this boils down to is that neighborhood council and council committee members are obligated to consider only factual evidence such as traffic studies and engineering reports, which often cost less than a few hundred dollars to obtain.

Perhaps the most grievous outcome of straying from the appropriate process for considering development proposals is that it costs taxpayers. Reimbursements to developers for legal fees often begin with poorly executed neighborhood council and committee decision-making before a project moves up the approval chain. These are dollars that could be spent instead to expand parking and improve streets.

The solution requires a willingness on the part of current council and committee members to play within the rules, be willing to tell the unpopular truth, and refocus the community to advocate for laws that concretely protect the quality of life for those who live there. Failure to do this will only lead to the inevitable consequence of forever losing their place in this bohemian paradise.