City Planning’s Power Grab

NEIGHBORHOODS AT STAKE-Most people have zero interest in talking about planning. Until a developer decides to build something big and stupid in their neighborhood.

 That's understandable, but it's also unfortunate, because the folks at City Hall know that few people are paying attention, and that makes it easier to slide things past us. Right now, the Department of City Planning (DCP) is rewriting the zoning code for the entire City, and if you think that doesn't concern you, you're very much mistaken. 

If I told you that the DCP was pushing for the approval of something called the Processes & Procedures Ordinance, your response might be "Who cares?" It sounds like a boring exercise in bureaucracy. But it's far more than that, and you should care. This ordinance has the potential to shift planning power in LA from elected officials to unelected bureaucrats, and that could have very serious consequences for your community, and the city as a whole.  

Over the past couple of weeks there have been some tense exchanges between City Planning staff and members of the public who are extremely concerned about Processes & Procedures. Last Thursday I went to a meeting held by a sub-committee of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council. HHWNC Vice-President Orrin Feldman had invited a senior planner from the DCP to do a presentation and respond to concerns. The planner flipped through his power point and answered questions, calming repeating the DCP's standard response, that the ordinance is just an administrative update that will have no serious impact on public participation in the planning process. 

Actually, it's way more than that. And you don't have to have a degree in urban planning to understand why this is so dangerous. All you have to do is compare what it says in the City Charter to the language found in this proposed ordinance. LA's City Charter says that all legislative power of the City is vested in the City Council, except as otherwise provided in the Charter. That includes power over planning and zoning, which means if you have an objection to a project or a plan for your neighborhood, you can call up your City Council rep and raise hell. And if enough community members make a concerted effort, you might even get your Councilmember to take action.  

But approval of Processes & Procedures would insert a whole new chapter in LA's Municipal Code. And if you take a look at the first few pages of the ordinance, you'll see that under General Authority the new language states.... 

"The City Council generally exercises all legislative authority associated with the Zoning Code, except where otherwise provided by the Charter, State law, or the Zoning Code." 

Those last six words do not appear in the Charter, and they weren't put in this ordinance by accident.  It's not like somebody inadvertently leaned on their keyboard and those words magically appeared. They were added deliberately so that the Zoning Code could override the Council's authority. And remember, City Planning is busy rewriting the Zoning Code right now.   

That's a huge shift. Currently, the people who have the ultimate say over planning and zoning are your elected officials, and they are accountable to you. If Processes & Procedures passes, the people making these decisions will be unelected bureaucrats, and they have no reason to worry about whether or not you think they're doing a good job. 

Still, the folks at City Planning insist that this is not a power grab. If that's true, there's a real simple way for them to prove it.   

They could take those six words out. In fact, they should take out the entire paragraph under General Authority.  If it's true that City Planning isn't trying to usurp the Council's authority, then they don't need that language. If this is really just an administrative update, that paragraph is completely unnecessary.  But while City Planning staff keeps saying they're open to revisions and the language hasn't been finalized, that paragraph is still there, and the ordinance is moving forward. It's in the document that was approved by the City Planning Commission in October and it's in the version that was sent to the City's Planning & Land Use Management Committee last week.   

Another troublesome thing about this new language is that it specifically says the Council's power is limited by State law. Theoretically, that's already the case. Cities can't pass laws that conflict with the laws of California.  But cities can still mount legal challenges to State law, and the new language seems intended to reduce the chances of that happening. Why is this important when it comes to zoning? 

Well, over the past few years legislators in Sacramento have passed a number of bills that have changed the zoning landscape. SB 35 mandated a streamlined approval process for infill development. SB 1818 allows developers to receive density bonusses for qualifying projects.  And you may remember the battle over SB 827, which would have automatically upzoned parcels within one half mile of transit hubs. It failed, but the bill's author has promised to bring it back.     

The fact that the new language specifically says that the City's authority over zoning is limited by the State's authority has to make you wonder who was really involved in writing this ordinance. When you consider that the State has been pushing hard to restrict local control over development, it seems likely that people from Sacramento had a hand in crafting Processes & Procedures. 

This ordinance is not just an administrative update. It's a power grab, intended to take planning authority from elected officials and give it to unelected bureaucrats. And if City Planning wants to prove that's not the case, all they have to do is remove the new paragraph under General Authority. It's highly unlikely they'll do that. 

If you want to maintain control over planning and zoning in your community, call your Councilmember TODAY and tell them you're opposed to the Processes & Procedures Ordinance.   


(Casey Maddren is President of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA [www.un4la.com]), a grass roots group advocating for better planning and a CityWatch contributor.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.