Venice residents try to effect change by suing the city

By Gary Walker

Known as an epicenter of offbeat poetry and art, Venice also has a long history of political activism.

Already well-versed in staging rallies and marches about a variety of causes, Venice residents have in recent years also begun to take their grievances about city government from the streets into the courtroom.

A neighborhood group called the Venice Coalition to Preserve Our Unique Community Character became the latest Venetians to sue the city of Los Angeles on Feb. 25, filing a civil complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court over alleged violations of zoning policy.

The complaint seeks an injunction to keep the city from approving any more exemptions to coastal-area zoning restrictions and to prevent administrative “signoffs” for pending projects. It also asks the court to declare that city planning officials have violated the Venice Specific Plan, the California Coastal Act and the California Constitution.

A big problem with exemptions is that the city isn’t required to notify residents about pending developments that get them, said attorney Sabrina Venskus, who is representing the coalition.

“Venice is at a tipping point. The city of Los Angeles, the Department of City Planning and real estate speculators and developers threaten to irreparably alter what makes Venice unique and threaten Venice’s status as a special community,” the lawsuit states.

“Developers are destroying Venice’s quaint, historic neighborhoods and their affordable housing at breakneck speed,” it continues. “They capitalize on presumed loopholes in local laws to obtain approval for illegal development without the input of community members. Defendants are complicit in this conduct and in fact encourage it.”

Venskus, a former Venice resident, said the lawsuit does not seek to overturn any current approvals by planning officials.

“The pattern and practice [of the city Planning Department], from my research, is illegal. This [lawsuit] is one of the only ways left to stem the tide of illegal activity. The transformation of neighborhoods is happening so quickly,” she said.

Other local attempts to sue the government have had mixed results.

The Venice Stakeholders Association sued the city of Los Angeles and the California Coastal Commission in 2009 after the commission rejected a plan to establish overnight parking district restrictions. In 2013, after commissioners rejected the concept for a third time, a potential settlement among the three parties was dropped.

Venice Stakeholders Association President Mark Ryavec, previously a legislative analyst for the Los Angeles City Council, blames his former employer for the number of legal actions filed by residents.

“I am not surprised by the use of lawsuits to address a variety of issues in Venice and elsewhere in the city of Los Angeles due to the dysfunctional nature of city government and its poor governance system,” wrote Ryavec in an email interview. “With the neighborhood council [being] strictly advisory, few residents participate and then find decisions result that are arbitrary and/or favor those with money and access.”

In 2014 the Venice Stakeholders Association brought a public nuisance lawsuit against the city and county, this time asking for enforcement of existing beach curfew laws in order to crack down on overnight homeless encampments along the boardwalk.

Ryavec said that case is under appeal.

With the help of the ACLU, Venice activists successfully sued the city in federal court to overturn city prohibitions on homeless people sleeping in cars.

Venetians also won a legal battle against the city about what items can be sold on the boardwalk and where, that victory compelling a rewrite of the boardwalk vending ordinance in 2011.

Former Venice Neighborhood Council President Linda Lucks applauded the lawsuit filed two weeks ago by the Venice Coalition to Preserve Our Unique Community Character.

“Someone had to try to legally stop the complete disregard for our community exhibited by the Planning Department to the character and soul of Venice,” she said.