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THIS MUCH I KNOW--The California coastline has inspired artists, poets, rock lyricists, and any of us who have taken a drive up Highway 1, the spectacular panorama of mountains peering above crashing waves. The Coastal Commission has an over 40-year legacy of protecting the coastline, despite the attempts of developers and their lobbyists to encroach by weakening or even eliminating the commission. 

But the protection of our unspoiled coastline may be at a turning point as pro-development interests attempt to oust Dr. Charles Lester, the Executive Director of the Commission. Dr. Lester has refused to resign quietly, calling for a public hearing, which will be held February 10 in Morro Bay. 

The reasons for the attempted coup are vague. As one commissioner stated off the record, there’s a “growing sense that there are management issues.” Lester, however, has helmed the Commission during an impressive list of accomplishments, including increased transparency and recently received permission to levy penalties against individuals who violate the Coastal Act’s access provisions to the tune of $11,500 per violation per day. 

Lester has a solid report card from fifty environmental and social justice groups for his interpretation and enforcement of the Coastal Act. A coalition of representatives from the NRDC, Heal the Bay, and dozens of other groups made their feelings known in a letter they sent to commission chair Steve Kinsey and state leaders. 

The Coastal Commission serves as the zoning board for the 840 miles of coastline. Established by voter initiative in 1972 and made permanent by the legislature through the adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976, the 12-member board is appointed by the Governor, Speaker of the Assembly, and the Senate Pro Tem. 

Just what’s at stake? A proposal to build 1,100 houses in the coastal zone in Southern California is before the commission right now. At $1.5 million per ocean view house, there’s nearly $2 billion at play. Developers regularly challenge coastall staff rulings, empty their wallets to candidates, and hire teams of lobbyists to encourage commissioners to make exceptions to give their projects the go-ahead. 

The Coastal Commission decides on proposals for residential properties, hotels, energy production facilities and other projects that are worth billions of dollars, all without much transparency in the process. Hotel developers, for example, hire lobbyists who are classified as agents under law and don’t have to report how much they are paid, often donating to the campaigns of commissioners who run for local office. 

There are rules in place to protect against conflict of interest but there is potential for abuse, which makes attempts by the commissioners to take control of the agency from the staff even more troubling. 

Since taking the job in 2011, Lester and his staff’s expert opinion to deny coastal projects hasn’t pleased commissioners. In 2006, the commissioners denied 26 projects. During Lester’s tenure, the commission has turned down 24 projects over the entire four year period. 

Ironically, the group of commissioners attempting to oust Lester are Brown appointees and it was Governor Brown who signed the Coastal Act into law forty years ago. These appointees serve at-will appointments, unlike the eight commissioners who serve a fixed four-year term. The governor can replace them if he’s unhappy with them but has so far not stepped up to defend the commission’s independence under Lester. 

The California Coastline must not be up for grabs to the highest bidder. Governor Brown should not leave that as his legacy.

 

(Beth Cone Kramer is a Los Angeles-based writer and CityWatch contributor.)

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ANIMAL WATCH-Although dog poop was not mentioned as a possible offender in his post, “A Disgusting Day to Breathe-in-L.A.,” in February 2015, EarthJustice Attorney Adrian Martinez warned that large areas of central Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley, and southern LA communities are breathing levels of particulate pollution that the SCAQMD classifies as “unhealthy,” after years of fighting for clean air. 

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PERSPECTIVE-The year 2016 will offer some local drama to Los Angeles, complementing the spectacle of the national elections. In what may be the most far-reaching ballot measure of this century, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will affect how the city does business with developers. The backers have targeted the November ballot. 

I sat down with Jill Stewart last Saturday to get some insight and clarity on the measure.  She is the campaign manager for the initiative who believed that its objectives were important enough for the good of the city that she resigned as managing editor of the LA Weekly to lead the effort. 

It is an understatement to say that anything to do with land use is a very technical subject; therefore, this article is only a start in understanding the complexities. I hope to discuss it further with Stewart and others. 

In her view, spot general plan amendments are creating congestion and reducing affordable housing.

Today, such amendments are granted on a piecemeal (spot) basis. They have led to spurious, disjointed development. 

She explained that this approach favored the financial return to a developer over the needs of the residents. Contiguous areas generally lose their character as a hodgepodge of architectural styles and transformation of demographics replace the harmonious nature of established neighborhoods, which is what happens current residents and businesses are banished. The high-density nature of these one-off projects almost assures congestion. Even when situated close to a major transit route, the occupants are unlikely to give up their cars in numbers sufficient to reduce traffic. If anything, there will be more cars as the neighborhood population increases. 

In addition, the number of affordable units are low in relation to the total. 

From my own experience, I have witnessed the displacement of middle-class residents as a result of projects with density bonuses granted under SB1818. The bonus is in return for the developer setting aside a few units as “affordable.” Unfortunately, the buildings which were replaced contained far more affordable units. For the record, the affordable units that were destroyed in my community were not substandard. They lacked the bells and whistles of newer units, but they were very livable and within reach of most budgets. Recently passed AB2222 closed the gap somewhat, but projects built under spot amendments are another matter. 

Stewart emphasized the importance of “significant areas” in determining how and if a General Plan amendment could be approved. Amendments must encompass an area which, as defined in the measure, has significant social, economic or physical identity. That translates to an entire community, district plan or specific plan area, an entire neighborhood council, or an area not less than 15 acres. 

She believes this allows ample leverage to address blighted areas. Carefully planned amendments could offer a coordinated revitalization process over wide swaths (as opposed to disparate projects.)

One controversial action, if the measure is approved, involves an up to two-year moratorium on amendments (unless required by the Department of Building and Safety.) A staff person for a Councilmember expressed concern if this should happen. He told me it would probably kill a major deal that’s in the early stages. 

According to Stewart, the moratorium is designed to allow a systematic review the General Plan (this review will be performed periodically as a requirement under Section 5 of the proposal.) It appears to me that this would amount to an undertaking which would likely attract the attention of every conceivable interest group with a stake in the city. The review could be as important as passing the measure itself. 

She indicated that the city’s current approach to development has pushed the working class farther out, created a boom-or-bust construction economy and replaced industrial zones with gentrified communities. 

Developers or their agents will not be allowed to prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) under the measure’s rules. This will eliminate a blatant conflict of interest. Only the public’s lead agency can prepare the report, recovering the cost from the applicant. 

As I see it, the current system invites widespread corruption. There are simply insufficient checks and balances. Spot amendments can serve as the liquid currency of municipal political quid pro quo and create temptation some officials find irresistible. This is one reason why former mayor Richard Riordan is supporting the initiative.  

Councilmembers trade amendments for contributions. According to Stewart (and consistent with Riordan’s observations,) the net result of these deals are higher rents. So-called affordable units are priced starting at $3,000 per month. 

Stewart plans to develop a web of supporters representing a diverse cross-section of residents and interest groups to educate the public, collect signatures and otherwise promote the initiative. Her background as a journalist for a widely-read publication seems well-suited for reaching out to the many component groups of Los Angeles. She anticipates the full-court challenge the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative will face from elected officials and their allies. 

So much needs to be shared with the public. Case studies providing clear examples of what to expect would be most helpful. 

There will be much more to come on this subject, from any number of sources. Reform is needed; the initiative could be a catalyst to that end. It deserves our attention.

 

(Paul Hatfield is a CPA and serves as President of the Valley Village Homeowners Association. He blogs at Village to Village and contributes to CityWatch. The views presented are those of Mr. Hatfield and his alone and do not represent the opinions of Valley Village Homeowners Association or CityWatch. He can be reached at: phinnoho@aol.com.) Photo: Talbot Troy/Flickr. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

 

PERSPECTIVE--The Ratepayer Advocate is supposed to be in the vanguard of DWP reform efforts. Fred Pickel (photo) can’t even find the rear. To make matters worse, a proposal for substantial reforms is coming from an unlikely source – Felipe Fuentes, a councilmember whose motive to eschew reelection is the subject of speculation. 

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TRANSPORTATION POLITICS--While any reasonable person will acknowledge the need for transportation/infrastructure (T/I) funding, too many of us are acting blind, deaf and dumb (especially the "dumb" part) about our hideous state/federal funding reality: by treating T/I funding as an afterthought, we've forced and ignored the reality of high gas prices as a necessary means of funding something that should be part of the general fund. 

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EDITOR’S PICK--More than 30 boxes from former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge’s office, marked for destruction, have been recovered by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office, according to a city attorney spokesperson. However, it is believed more than another 150 boxes may either be unaccounted for or destroyed. 

According to Rob Wilcox, a spokesperson for City Attorney Mike Feuer, 35 boxes pertaining to Council District 4 (CD4) have been in the City Attorney’s possession “for several months” since it was discovered the boxes were at Piper Technical Center, a city facility, east of downtown, that houses varies city offices, including its records management and elections divisions. 

It is not clear who alerted the City Attorney’s office that boxes from CD4 were at the facility. 

According to Wilcox, representatives from the City’s Attorneys office were seeking legal documents relative to a least one lawsuit, a land use issue in Los Feliz, when “management” learned documents related to that litigation and other CD4 documents were at Piper. Wilcox said, the City Attorney’s office then had the Los Angeles Dept. of General Services transport the 35 boxes to the City Attorney’s office. 

According to Wilcox, it is not known how long the boxes were at Piper facility. Additionally, Wilcox said he was still seeking information about who alerted the City Attorney’s office of the boxes.

Additionally, Michael Miller, a former city attorney who lives in Los Feliz, said in an interview today, that another 100 or more boxes may have already been destroyed. (Read the rest.) 

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GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE--Those of us who happened to have been scouring the cluttered bulletin board in the corridor near the John Ferraro Chambers at City Hall this week, may have been surprised to come across, wedged behind a FilmLA permit, a document entitled, “Notice Of Intention To Amend The Conflict of Interests Code of The City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission.”  

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DEEGAN ON LA--Tearing up your tickets may be a pipe dream for some, but it became reality for over 200 people with homelessness and other issues a few days ago when the City Attorney hosted another in a series of Homeless Citation Clinics, administered through their innovative program called HEART (Homeless Engagement and Response Team). 

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