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Three Years, Five Months, 68 Days … and Now 24 Hours More To Figure Out Planning Appeal Fees

I thought I’d seen just about everything from this City Council but my eyes were opened by Tuesday’s debate over a plan to raise fees for homeowners and neighborhood and community groups to appeal Planning and Building Safety decisions by 200 to 2,000 percent.

This is a City Council that isn’t worth the $180,000 a year they are paid. They aren’t even worth half that as community activists are proposing to put on the ballot next year. They aren’t worth 10 cents.

What was before the council was an urgent ordinance to fix “typos” and backed off somewhat from the astronomical appeals fees approved unanimously Aug. 12. It also was supposed to fix the open meeting law violation that was used to sneak it through — something that was sure to lead to a lawsuit that could nullify the ordinance months or years from now.

What it didn’t fix was the blatant constitutional violations represented by onerous fees intended to stifle the due process rights of ordinary citizens to challenge city decisions that ruin their neighborhoods and destroy the quality of their lives.

When Richard Alarcon is the people’s hero, nailing the illegal anti-democratic nature of this measure, and when Tom LaBonge is the voice of reason, saying he doesn’t think anyone is “comfortable” with it so put it for another day — you know this was as ill-informed and muddled a debate as you’ve ever seen. 

For 90 minutes, the Council circled around what this was about in a confused and pointless discussion that left them even more dumbfounded than usual, if that’s possible.

In the end, they agreed, unanimously, to revisit the issue Wednesday and seemed to agree to keep citizen appeal fees to the $75 to $300 level they have been instead of up to the $6,188 level that was proposed.

But that’s only a temporary decision. The intent is to come back with a new fee schedule that moves toward “full cost recovery” — City Hall’s policy of making the shrinking middle class and homeowners pay the bulk of taxes and pay again for everything they get in services from the city.

There ought to be a law, maybe there is if the nation’s civil rights laws apply to ordinary law-abiding people. 

A dozen or so community activists spoke out against the measure at the outset of the debate, people from the wealthy hillside communities to the Eastside, from Neighborhood Councils and environmental justice groups.

When people from all classes and backgrounds come together like this, as you’re seeing so often these days, you know the winds of change are blowing and the discontent with City Hall’s failure is growing.

Not everybody sees that, of course. Some are oblivious.

Ed Reyes, the Council’s point man for developers, and Bernard Parks, the Council’s point man on fiscal irresponsibility, for instance, argued the proposal dates back three years, that a consultant was paid $100,000 to come up with the fee schedule and public hearings have been held since April.

So everyone should know about this measure. Only everyone didn’t know about it, not the Council or the public.

That’s because the language on agendas hid the appeals fee issue from the public and Neighborhood Councils and other community groups were never actively brought into the process.

The best the Planning Department could do was say that information was posted on its website and emails sent out to NCs. Developers, in contrast, were brought into discussions about the increased fees they face and how they would get better and faster service for their money while the community would for the most part be silenced by the high appeals fees.

You can be sure developers, their lobbyists, lawyers, consultants and PR advisers were given all the access they wanted during the three years, five months and 68 days that have gone into the process of killing democracy in LA.

It is a sign of the times that the Council has once again back down in the face of public opposition. They are afraid of the people and the growing cohesion of activists that is rapidly building into a full-scale revolt.

They have good reason to be afraid. Their neglect and incompetence has allowed the budget deficit to threaten the city’s future, billboards and marijuana stores to flourish without regulation, the DWP to gouge the public to put into the pockets of a union that is out of control.

The list of their failures goes on and on and so does their list of attacks on the rights of ordinary people to be treated fairly and to get a government that serves them.

There are only so many grievances the public will bear before they awaken and do something about what’s wrong, even in LA.

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28 Responses to Three Years, Five Months, 68 Days … and Now 24 Hours More To Figure Out Planning Appeal Fees

  1. Nina Royal says:

    I stated in my letter to city council members yesterday:
    I want to let you know how outrageous and unfair it is for you to vote YES regarding the fees for the appeal process as outlined below.
    (I sent them a matrix prepared by Cindy Cleghorn) These fees will prevent average citizens from appealing or challenging any decision and give big business and developers a huge break and an unfair advantage.
    Please review the information and vote NO in favor of us, your constituents, who would most likely have no recourse because it will be cost prohibitive for the average person to pursue the appeal process. This is absolutely unfair and I hope you will do the right thing for the Citizens of L.A. and vote NO!
    Obviously, it doesn’t appear that anyone is listening. I hope we see everyone at our next SLAP meeting. This issue is extremely important to all of us. Thank you Ron for keeping all of us informed! We are very appreciative of this site.

  2. Nina Royal says:

    I just thought of something, I wonder what would have happened with the Home Depot Appeal won by the Sunland-Tujunga Alliance and the appeal won by Elaine Brown and Mary Benson regarding the 4-3/4 acres in S-T and other appeals won by L.A. neighbors if the new Fees were in existance at that time?
    Isn’t it rather suspicious as to their reasons for implementing those new fees?…Hmmmm

  3. El Quixotian says:

    Yeah, but this way, applicants seeking allowances or variances won’t have to go through the trouble of greenwashing their proposals for LEED Certification in order to be shuffled more quickly through Planning.
    Just think about all the money that can be saved by downsizing Departments, ignoring concerns of impacted neighbors, and letting landowners sprawl however they want…it worked so well for that big city in California…er, Los Angeles?
    (In an effort to avoid further confusion, ensuing posts arguing reductio ad absurdum against the likes of Ad Coelum will be rated “I” for Irony)

  4. Anonymous says:

    We’re going to need a fundraiser.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I almost fell off my chair when I heard Alarcon say, “this is why the neighborhood councils say we try and do things sneaky and behind their backs. Its not right.” OMG WTF?

  6. Walter Moore says:

    City Hall is trying to raise our taxes through the “a la carte” method.
    We already pay more than enough taxes for all the basic city services: police, fire, building and safety, etc.
    But to justify taking even more of our money, they keep claiming they have to charge “fees” for everything that used to be, and should be, included.
    Sidewalks in front of your house broken? Get out your checkbook. Want enough police? We’ll have to raise your trash fees.
    And now, the latest example: You want the zoning laws enforced? Oh, that’s going to cost you.
    This is absurd and obscene. The staff to process appeals is always there. Their payroll is a fixed cost. It’s not as though the city goes out and hires people to review paperwork. And even if the City did so, that is what our tax dollars should cover.
    You should no more have to pay to file an appeal than you should pay to call the police: all citizens are entitled to law enforcement, regardless of their ability to pay.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Where were Gail Goldberg and her Planning Assistant Directors today? Eva Daniel is Director of Personnel. As for Ed Reyes, he should be moved to a committee more suitable for his skills. Land Use is too important to be left in his hands.

  8. Anonymous says:

    You are right Walter. But we are screwed by our actions or inactions…….

  9. Charlie Baker says:

    What’s interesting about this sneaky fee is PLUM Chair Ed Reyes’ claim that this item had been vetted and discussed publicly (in committtees, etc).
    Of course even seasoned Neighborhood Activists with their eyes and ears poking through early notifications and Committee agendas missed this one in August.

  10. James says:

    Just like the $30 million HUD loan to CIM which was heard in a Committee. Then when the outageous act of Corporate Welfare and gifts of public funds were spotted on the City Council agenda, public comment was shut down (literaly) when Hollywood Gadfly John Walsh was cut off by City Attorney Dion O’Donnel.
    Walsh was caught in a twilight zone by O’Donnel & Garcetti when the wouldn’t allow Walsh to speak under general public comments because it was on the agenda but at the same time disallowing Walsh from speaking ON the agenda item itself since it was heard in committee.

  11. Tim says:

    All the discussion of not being able to hire personnel was a red hearing. They could have left the appeal fees alone and increased application fees (and maybe just for larger projects so it won’t impact the middle class homeowner).
    What this is really about is a few very successful appeals by average Citizens disrupting the backroom deals between Wealthy Developers and Councilmen/women.
    Neither the Developer nor the Councilpersons should complain, afterall, if a Builder applies for a “by right” project, appeals really aren’t effective. But the City Council are Kings and Queens of their Kingdoms and don’t like anyone butting in.

  12. Edward Nemon says:

    But Watchout everyone, the updating of Community Plans starting in Hollywood will increase the size of the project (density), then today’s variences become tomorrow’s BY RIGHT project.
    Then the whole appeal fee issue becomes moot.

  13. In Eagle Rock says:

    I was able to hear most the discussion on “Item 23″ on the “Councilphone” line today from the start but not quite to the end. Alarcon hit the mark on the problem today about as well as anyone could have. Yes, unexpectedly so, but his usual bullying style went for the cause of the people for a change. But with each additional speaker, I was suspicious of their motives and I tried to see, “What’s in it for them?”
    Ed Reyes, towards the end of discussion on this, (and I detected by his tone, some serious annoyance) remarked on the sudden flurry of opposition for a matter that had been in progress with little interest all along the way until now. He noted the emails and blogging getting the opposition to suddenly form as it comes before the Council.
    That complaint by Reyes was a compliment to the efficacy of the technology promoting speedy and widespread communications to counter the shifty moves routinely taken by the Council and others. One basis very relevant and causing the return of Item 23 was the use of cryptic phraseology in drafting agendas that reveals as little as possible of the substance of the matter presented. IF NOTICE did the job, you would have more people complaining about what’s been happening under everyone’s noses.
    Ed Reyes just doesn’t see it because he’s been there too long and the deceptions have become part of his procedural makeup. He’s not the only one, but the most obvious culprit today.
    Ed missed the point that the very flaw that brought it back for Council to vote again was the LACK OF PROPER NOTICE provided to the public so as to identify the subject matter to be decided. THAT analysis totally escaped Ed’s overview of the situation, and he was absolutely intent on sending the CMs on a guilt trip, “You all voted for this before,” and adding something like, “This was just to fix some typos so your vote should be the same,” as he tried to sway the now-inquisitive CMs back. (This brought back some of that “on second thought” ambience that was obvious when Solar Measure B was brought back to Council after Garcetti rushed it through for approval by CMs relying on Eric’s outright deception nearly a year ago.
    Wesson’s prefacing remarks was usual B.S. as he tries to butter up the audience, paraphrasing it, “There is no one who tries to protect the interests of the public more than Ed Reyes.” The trite phrase “under his strong leadership” again was heard spoken by one of the CMs, maybe more- and again, gratuitously so.
    The notion of the “cost recovery” was inserted here to be a sort of doomsday notice, even as Reyes said, “I don’t want to be an alarmist.” That was exactly what he was.
    Reyes has finally become the point in city government that shows the long-promised “transparency,” but that of his ill-conceived goals, and not of the processes.
    The city personnel at the hearing plainly sounded as if on a mission to get it passed and without being splashed upon as the s— hits the fan. One responded to the staffing question with, “They are on furlough,” as if it equated with “laid off,” to wit, “unavailable.” Lots of slanting applied to the picture with each round of questions and speakers.
    Elusive were responses to Alarcon’s questions as to how to achieve a restoral of status quo on the fee structure. The possibility of individuals and developers filing for “free” during an interim period pending any change was what was intimated, again as that person’s way of dissuading any “rocking the boat” at this stage.
    So I learned here that this was not shut down but lives another day. Ron and Walter peg it correctly and Alarcon’s position was essential to slowing down another “unanimous” “aye” vote.
    Puzzling was the interjections of using Neighborhood Councils. Not as to determining the public’s view which might be simple enough, but as being the vehicle for appeals and possibly funding them. Well, the $45,000 of an NC’s annual budget can go very quickly now, and adding this duty is not in any way satisfactory as a substitute for having a properly affordable fee schedule.
    One more thing, the device that’s becoming more often used and that invites more challenges on assorted levels, is the reliance on comparisons to validate new charges: “We (the City of Los Angeles) have the lowest fees of all cities regarding xxxxxx,” or “Other cities charge xxxxx [any service sought to be isolated and fees raised].
    The City Council needs to stop gouging the public to solve the budget woes and to deal with the unions firmly and apply fiscal reality during those interactions instead of imitating a door mat.
    Well, let’s see who squirms tomorrow and how the public is made out to be the “bad guy” who gets a “free ride” which is one of the current scenarios covering up years of dismal management.
    Maybe, for a change, they will show some responsibilty to constituents and not to big business, balls-out development and overloading infrastructure beyond any version of sensibility.
    But what do I expect will be done here by our CMs? Like Mayor Tony used to say, “Dream with me.”

  14. Nina Royal says:

    I would give anything if I could be there this morning instead of where I have to to be, but it’s not possible, so hang in there everyone and continue to speak against it for me as well.

  15. Anonymous says:

    In Eagle Rock,
    The best analysis I read of today’s proceedings. Right on!

  16. Anonymous says:

    Developers have always complained about Neighborhood Councils hindering their projects. Raising the appeal fees was one way of helping the development community accomplish their bad projects and profits. The new Community Plans will further achieve these goals by maximising the density so most projects will be by-right with no public hearings. To now justify these fees due to staff shortage/furloughs/ERIP, when the fee increase discussions according to Ed Reyes have been going on for years, (during fiscally flush times with no staff furloughs) clearly shows the intent of the developer doormat at the helm.

  17. Sandy Sand says:

    So what’s the answer?
    We could get a stable of pro bono lawyers to sue the council and tie them up in court for years every time they break the law, the Charter rules or try to put something over on us.
    Short of getting all these crooked professional politicians out of office and writing an entirely new Charter, not even suing them might work.
    It just occurred to me that raising appeal fees will also put kabash on fighting illegal garage and home conversions…just one more neighborhood blight.
    Without the power to fight them the best neighborhoods will go to hell.

  18. Walter Moore says:

    “So what’s the answer?”
    The answer is simple: elect better people.
    Every two years, you have the opportunity to replace half the City Council.
    Every four years, you also have the opportunity to replace the Mayor, City Attorney and City Controller.
    Focus on replacing bad people with good people, not on begging leopards to change their spots.

  19. Anonymous says:

    This has been the most intelligent dialogue on a topic posted on a blog I’ve ever seen. Eagle Rock sounds like he should be running for office. The grandstanding of the council is absurb. On one had they talk about having the community involved in the process then they turn around and want to pass the ordinance. Let’s watch which council members fold today. Eagle Rock is right the power of the internet getting the issues out to the people is scarying them into knowning the wrath against them.

  20. el Quixotian says:

    “You should no more have to pay to file an appeal than you should pay to call the police: all citizens are entitled to law enforcement, regardless of their ability to pay.”
    Careful Walter, they may be listening…
    As for the Planning, Tim is spot on: How about raising fees for APPLICATIONS?* If there was no development, or at least less that requires exceptions to the existing zoning and thus requiring due process, then we wouldn’t need to burden the staff who could then be retasked to enforcement.
    Worst thing that would happen is that our husbands and wives would have us back sooner from NC meetings.
    *I Rating (for Irony) is being appealed…

  21. Anonymous says:

    As reported by LA Times “City officials contend the city typically spends $13,000 to process an appeal of a development decision to the planning commission and $11,000 to process an appeal of a development decision to the city council.
    Councilman Greig Smith, who serves on the council’s budget committee, said the city needs to recoup more of those costs to shore up the planning department, which has more than 100 vacant positions and 80% of its staff taking furloughs every other week.
    Smith also argued that the appeal system is being abused by businesses and organizations that seek to derail development or keep a competitor from completing a real estate project.
    “The easy access to the appeal process … is clogging the planning department,” he said.”
    Hope the Neighborhood Councils will challenge these false statements, and ask the tough questions that the City Council should have asked. Further, Smith’s contention that people living 5 miles from a project should not have the right to appeal, shows the problem of the development process and planning in the city. To think that only adjoining neighbors are affected by a project is the reason why cumulative impacts of projects are never accounted for. Projects continue to be approved as though they alone exist on an island, with no bearing on adjoining neighborhoods and the existing infrastructure. Soon all streets are clogged by traffic from projects analysed as stand alone which now can be challenged only by adjoining neighbors. It is this kind of thinking individually and collectively from the Council that is on display as the disaster LA has become. The City Council is part of the problem. They have no solutions and neither does the Planning Department.

  22. Nina Royal says:

    I read that column this am and it is such BS.
    If Smith believed what he said, then he would have discouraged people from appealing Sunshine Canyon’s dump, Walmart and Kohls. No one outside the perimiter would have been able to appeal Providence Holy Cross, Los Lomas, Canyon Hills, Angeles Golf Course, the 4 3/4 acres, Home Depot, etc either. These all had major effects on surrounding communities.
    It appears to me that this was a hair brained decision to help the developers by making appeals cost prohibitive. Aren’t appeals supposed to be covered by our tax dollars. If these projects were fully disclosed to the communities, they followed their specific plans, and they check before making those bad decisions, appeals would not be necessary and they would be saving the city money by making lawsuits unnecessary. BTW, if everything we do is supposed to be cost recovered, where are our tax dollars going? On almost every city agenda, there is a item where the city is waiving the fees for activities by non profits that should be cost recovery. What about them?
    Thumbs up to Councilmember Alarcon, who called it right. In my opinion Garcetti should give the E&N Committee back to him. The winner of CD2 can handle the Entertainment Industy assignment where they both are claiming to have experience.

  23. LA Moderator says:

    Well Nina, they’re just contemplating their brand of economic stimulus.
    They’re indeed providing jobs…just focused on their special friends. Big Boxes like Home Depot are a perfect excample where there are jobs created, but also lost by those smaller retailers who had been trying to serve the market.
    As for avoiding appeals by having due process in the first place, that illustrates their shortsidedness.
    If indeed they are prejudiced towards preferring new development (at the expense of those who will be adversely impacted) then they may think that things will often slip by without an appeal. That’s not to say that NC’s are to blame for the increase, as the CM’s react to shield projects from the scrutiny our hearings have brought.
    It just means that we need to keep the pressure on, by communicating the concerns we have that this is detrimental to the interests of our stakeholders, and unified as we convey their consensus by being all the more proactive prior to the original determinations.

  24. Nina Royal says:

    I agree with you 100% and the only thing that eases my frustration is, as you said, helping to keep the pressure on by being proactive. We need to continue encouraging more people to join us to do the same.

  25. Anonymous says:

    Nina, the Planning Department spokesperson said that there would be no appeals in the future because the new community plans would allow projects by-right. By-right projects mean that the zoning is upzoned to maximum allowed. Can’t appeal by-right projects.

  26. LA Moderator says:

    That’s exactly why tne NC’s of the Hollywood Coalition have been proactivly reviewing the recently released and long awaited draft of the Hollywood Community Plan.
    It’s a bit of a hybrid, with the old draft hopefully adopting some of the recomendations from a couple of years ago, updated to morph some of the newer format as previewed at the PlanCheckNC session a few months ago. As the supporting appendi and zoning maps are posted, we can drill in, and we have both the institutional memory of committee members (who have heard stakeholder concerns at meetings specific to the plan and general to all planning/zoning issues), as well as the cooperation of our neighboring groups in identifying common trends which can be addressed collectively.
    Nina, I’m not sure I’ll make it to SLAP tomorrow, but that’s just the sort of thing which we can continue to organize throughout the city. So, keep the good work!
    Dave Uebersax

  27. I am not a familiar commentor merely could’nt disregard anything so worthful. A thumbs up to you.

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