By HOWARD FINE
A small retail, commercial or residential project might need just a lobbyist or two to steer it through the approval process. But master-planned communities are so large and usually so controversial that they often require an entire team of lobbyists and related experts.
“As a rule of thumb, the bigger the project, the more controversial it is, and the more resources a developer has to assemble to deal with that controversy,” said Michael Gagan, a lobbyist with L.A.-based Rose & Kindel, which represented developer Robert Maguire in the Playa Vista project.
“The biggest projects can often involve a team of 25 to 50 technical experts and lobbyists working on and off over a three- to five-year period, which can add up to several million dollars a year,” Gagan said.
Because there is so little open land left within L.A. city limits, only three master-planned projects have made the city’s quarterly list of 10 top lobbying clients over the last three years, according to Bruce Aoki, administrative director of the city’s Ethics Commission. The three are: the Mountaingate project, west of the San Diego (405) Freeway and north of the Getty Center; an expansion of Porter Ranch in the northwest San Fernando Valley; and the Royal Park Development project in Sylmar.
Most of the master-planned developments in the works are located in unincorporated sections of L.A. County, especially in the Santa Clarita area. But the county does not separate out master-planned projects on its quarterly lobbying reports, making it difficult to gauge how much developers spend for lobbying.
Money is not just going for lobbying purposes. Each year, developers also contribute thousands of dollars to the campaign funds of county supervisors, who make the ultimate decisions on their projects.
Often, master-planned community developers such as Newhall Land & Farming Co. or Irvine Co. have sizeable in-house staffs of attorneys, lobbyists and community relations specialists. Other developers hire lobbying firms, attorneys or land-use planners.
“The scope of the lobbying team depends on the challenges faced by the project,” said Jon Curtis, an attorney at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. “The key is whether the land you are planning to develop has already been zoned for that purpose or whether the zoning has to be changed.”
Zoning changes for master-planned communities are probably the single most difficult step in the approval process, Gagan said. That is frequently the issue around which the opposition to a project will coalesce.
Then there are other challenges. For example, if the site contains endangered species or wetlands, it will almost certainly draw intense opposition from environmental groups, as has been the case at Playa Vista. Another issue is traffic, especially if the site’s neighbors believe the project will dump thousands of cars onto their once-quiet streets or onto an already-crowded stretch of freeway.