In 2000, the voters of the city of Los Angeles adopted extensive charter reform. One of the primary objectives of this initiative, sponsored in large part by then-Mayor Richard Riordan, was to bring governmental decision-making closer to the local community level. In doing so, the new charter focused extensively on the issues of planning and zoning.
Rather than leaving all planning decisions in the hands of a citywide Planning Commission, the charter established seven area planning commissions, known as APCs, each consisting of five volunteer members appointed by the mayor and covering distinct geographical parts of the city. These commissions are charged with reviewing projects that are judged to have limited local impact, while the nine-member citywide commission continues to review major projects.
These APC commissioners need not and, in fact, do not possess any special training, knowledge or experience in land-use matters, and certainly are not familiar with the body of land-use and zoning laws applicable to many of their decisions. Pursuant to the city charter and zoning code, the APCs are empowered to decide many important cases. In many instances, their decisions are final – meaning there is no further right of appeal to the City Council. The only remedy left is litigation, and that, all too often, is expensive for modest projects. The impact of a negative APC decision can be devastating upon an applicant, as it can result in significant financial losses, sometimes in the millions of dollars.
Yet, despite all this, the city of Los Angeles does not require any training program for its commissioners nor provide legal counsel to guide them on the complex issues of a case. When considering cases involving variances or legal nonconforming uses, the APCs, as appellate bodies of last resort, are placed in a position of having to understand and correctly apply legal concepts and rules. While Planning Department staff members are present at the hearings, most of the time no representative from the City Attorney’s Office is in attendance.
The results in many instances are predictable. Decisions are rendered that are not supported by the evidence, which may be contrary to the law, and which – in some circumstance – are “results oriented” rather than legally correct. This is extremely unfair and prejudicial to people who purchased properties in reliance on what the law permits them to build only to be told by an APC that their application is denied.
I have firsthand knowledge of many such unfortunate experiences. Recently, one of the APCs ignored the advice of the Department of Building & Safety and the Planning Department in a case involving proposed Brentwood restaurant Fig & Olive where the project was permitted to use the existing “grandfathered” number of parking spaces for the site. Statements made by some of the commissioners at this hearing demonstrated that they did not care what the law was nor the risk to the city of a decision that ignored it, because they did not like the result. So this APC ruled that the building permit must be revoked.
Our office filed a lawsuit and the court ruled in our client’s favor. Now our client will be able to proceed against the city for substantial damages for the delays caused by the illegal revocation of the building permit. The result will be an unnecessary cost for a city already wallowing in red ink!
The city attorney cites budgetary constraints as the reason his office does not provide the APCs with legal support at the hearings. However, one has to wonder whether in the long run the city would be better served providing such counsel to these local area planning commissions.
Benjamin M. Reznik, is chairman of the government, land-use, environment and energy department at the law firm of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP in Century City.
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