Sun, May

LA’s New Planning Reform Overlooks Serious Roadblock: City’s Credibility Problem


LA’S INCREDIBLE ZONING SOLUTIONS-A recent LA Times editorial, “LA’s broken planning system,” described how the City is now seeking support for its planning and zoning “reform package,” by proposing, once more, simply to update the City’s 35 community plans. Ostensibly, the promised updated plans will “head off” a proposed ballot initiative that would impose a moratorium on major construction projects. 

This proposed “solution” overlooks the City’s fundamental credibility problem: an ever-widening gulf between what’s promised and what’s actually delivered. In a recent example, Los Angeles Neighbors in Action prevailed against the City when the Superior Court found that, based on repeated mistaken City Attorney advice, LA’s building officials have been routinely ignoring the City’s adopted zoning standards for development of second units (“granny flats”) in single family residential zones. 

The City’s response? Not to follow its existing adopted standards designed to protect surrounding neighborhoods. Not to await the long-promised zoning reforms of its re:code LA study founded on extensive community input and customized for LA’s diverse neighborhoods.  Rather, the City proposes to “fast track” a proposed repeal of its adopted standards (which strictly regulate a proposed second unit’s size, location and visibility from the street), while replacing them with a very weak “one size fits all” standard that ignores any consideration of the surrounding neighborhood. Without any prior community input and study, the proposal is now scheduled to be heard by the Planning Commission on May 12. 

When a similar proposal was broached in 2009 under the tenure of former Planning Director Gail Goldberg, community meetings were swamped with homeowners wanting a voice in potentially major density changes to their neighborhoods. 

Under state law, second units must be approved on a ministerial basis if they meet the locality’s adopted standards. No public hearings can be held, no conditions of approval may be imposed to mitigate adverse impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, and no second unit permit can be rejected, no matter how negative the ensuing traffic and infrastructure impacts. 

These state law procedural requirements are bad enough, but, if a locality does not have its own adopted standards, it must ministerially approve any second unit application that meets the lenient state ”default” standard. The Legislature specifically designed the “default” standard to be so utterly weak that any rational city would prefer to adopt and enforce its own local standards, rather than follow that lenient state standard. 

In light of the strong outpouring of citizen opposition to the Department’s 2009 effort, then Planning Director Gail Goldberg “pulled the plug” on the study and refused to send any repealing ordinance to the City Council. Most citizens assumed the issue had been put to bed at that point. But that was only the beginning. 

In 2010, in response to the City Attorney’s mistaken legal advice, the Planning Department issued a behind-closed-doors administrative memo (ZA 120) ordering the Building and Safety Department (LADBS) to stop following the City’s adopted second units standards. Instead, ZA120 ordered LADBS to follow the weak state “default” standard for second units. 

In 2014, Los Angeles Neighbors in Action brought its lawsuit demanding that the City set aside ZA120 and resume following its adopted local standards. After almost two years of litigation, the Superior Court recently ruled that, since 2010, based on the City Attorney’s mistaken legal advice, the City has unlawfully been ignoring its adopted protective standards on a routine basis -- about 40 percent of the second unit permits issued by LADBS since 2010 have violated those adopted standards -- and ordering the City to stop using ZA 120 (and the state “default” standard) as the criteria for second unit permits.  

Perversely, however, as noted above, the City has recently proposed repealing its adopted second unit standards, and, in their place, implementing the very weak state “default” standard. The City has put this repeal proposal on a “fast track” as an urgency ordinance and noticed a Planning Commission public hearing for Thursday, May 12.  

As the proposed second unit repeal ordinance comes to hearing, we must put LA’s planning establishment on notice that we will not tolerate the continuing broken planning system. The City’s repeal proposal is bad public policy:  

  • It would allow second units to be built anywhere in any single family residential zone with virtually no protective standards for the surrounding neighborhood, without any public hearings, and without any discretion for LA’s decision-makers to condition or reject inappropriate increased density. 
  • Contrary to the rhetoric behind the much-heralded re:code LA study (which is supposed to include customized zoning standards to take into account the diverse topography, density and character of LA’s neighborhoods), the City’s repeal proposal would replace the existing strict second unit standards with a weak “one size fits all” “default” standard. 
  • The proposed “default” standard is so lacking in protection for surrounding single family neighborhoods that Los Angeles, as a rational municipality, should not want to be required to implement its extremely weak provisions and should instead prefer continuing to enforce its own protective local second unit ordinances. 

As the City begins formulating its defense against the upcoming ballot initiative, we need to signal to the City that this kind of bad planning proposal -- at wide variance from its promised good planning goals -- is completely unacceptable.  

Please join me and many other citizens, homeowner groups and neighborhood councils in investigating and writing about the City’s proposed second unit ordinance repeal. Call or email your City Council representative (and any other Council members or Planning Commissioners you know) to ascertain their commitment to, or distance from, this repeal proposal. Inquire whether they believe that the City should retain its existing adopted second unit standards until such time as a better, customized second unit zoning reform proposal is recommended by the re:code LA study. 

Plan to attend the May 12, 2016 Planning Commission public hearing at 8:30 AM at City Hall, Board of Public Works, Room 350, 200 N. Spring Street, LA 90012.


(Carlyle Hall is an environmental and land use lawyer in Los Angeles who founded the Center for Law in the Public Interest and litigated the well-known AB 283 litigation, in which the Superior Court ordered the City to rezone about one third of the properties within its territorial boundaries (an area the size of Chicago) to bring them into consistency with its 35 community plans. He alsol co-founded LA Neighbors in Action, which has recently been litigating with the City over its second dwelling unit policies and practices.) Photo credit: Beverly Press. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

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