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L.A. Planning Commission President Begs Lawsuit

Not often does the head of a planning commission suggest that someone should sue her city over a newly adopted ordinance. But it happened in Los Angeles and, in fact, a lawsuit has been filed.

In March, Los Angeles City Planning Commission President Jane Ellison Usher sent an email to community groups regarding a density bonus ordinance adopted by the City Council. The ordinance essentially implements SB 1818 approved in 2004, a state law that mandates increased density bonuses and development incentives in exchange for development of affordable housing units (see CP&DR, September 2004). The new Los Angeles ordinance makes application of the density bonus provisions and incentives a ministerial matter. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Planning Director Gail Goldberg endorsed the ordinance as an affordable housing tool, and the City Council approved it 12-2 after declaring it exempt from California Environmental Quality Act review.

However, neighborhood activists opposed the ordinance, saying it would lead to incompatible, high-density development with inadequate parking in relatively low-density neighborhoods that may not have good transit. In her email to activists, Usher, a Villaraigosa appointee and former legal advisor to Mayor Tom Bradley, said that two legal issues "are ripe for immediate litigation." These, she wrote, are: "1) Whether the categorical exemption issued in support of the city's enabling ordinance is fatally flawed in light of the actual contents of the ordinance, and 2) Whether the ‘ministerial' definition contained in the ordinance itself violates CEQA."

A lawsuit filed in April by a Valley Village resident asks that the court respond to these two questions in the affirmative.

 
The proposed and bitterly contested development of Rancho San Juan in Monterey County appears to have been resolved after 25 years of conflict. In April, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and developer HYH Corporation signed an agreement that permits development on about 330 acres while excluding development on Rancho San Juan's remaining 2,200 acres of farmland and open space north of Salinas.

The county is scheduled to conduct public hearings on the revised project in June. Importantly, the two major project opponents — LandWatch Monterey County and the Rancho San Juan Opposition Coalition — have endorsed the settlement.

The county has planned for extensive development of Rancho San Juan since the 1980s (see CP&DR Local Watch, June 2003). However, development has been stymied by political battles, litigation and referendums. In 2005, voters rejected a specific plan for Rancho San Juan, and last year they overturned approval of HYH's 671-acre, 1,150-unit first phase development called Butterfly Village (see CP&DR Local Watch, July 2007).

The settlement ends litigation that HYH filed against the county in 2001 over the county's planning process. Under the settlement, the 1,150-unit project will be limited to about 330 acres, 32% of units must be designated affordable, a neighborhood commercial area will double in size, and a park and public open space will replace a planned golf course. The county will pay HYH $1 million and waive $1 million worth of impact fees. Furthermore, the settlement precludes further subdivision of Rancho San Juan.


A county planning director may also serve as the executive officer of the county's local agency formation commission, a Sierra County judge has ruled. The decision appears to be the first that directly addresses the question of whether a county employee may serve as the LAFCO executive officer since the Legislature approved a measure requiring LAFCOs to be independent agencies (see CP&DR, September 2000).

The lawsuit involves a conflict over a farmland security zone — or "Super Williamson Act" — designation for land in eastern Sierra County. The Board of Supervisors approved the designation, which provides tax breaks in exchange for a 20-year assurance the land will remain in agricultural production, in March 2007. The designation, however, carved out a 7-acre area that lies in City of Loyalton's "community core." Among other things, opponents argued that it was a conflict of interest for Sierra County Planning Director Tim Beals to serve as the LAFCO executive officer. Despite the 2000 legislation that separated out LAFCOs from county government, county planners or administrative officers still act as LAFCO executive officers in some smaller counties.

Sierra County Superior Court Judge R. Michael Smith ruled there is no conflict: "Government Code §§ 56380 and 56384 specifically allow LAFCOs to contract with public agencies for personnel. Therefore, the same person holding the position of planning director for the county and executive officer of LAFCO does not create ‘incompatible offices."

The case is Sierra Valley Development Company, LLC v. Board of Supervisors of Sierra County, Sierra County Superior Court Case No. 6729.


The Napa County grand jury has concluded that oversight of two farmworker housing projects that went far over budget was lacking and that "public servants who were supposed to oversee these projects failed to do their job and have not acknowledged that they had any responsibility for the problems."

The two housing projects completed in 2006 are located in Calistoga and Oakville. They ended up costing about $1.7 million more than estimated. The director of the county and the City of Napa's housing authorities unilaterally decided to use city funds to cover much of the overrun without the city's approval. Eventually, the housing director resigned under pressure and the city's finance director was terminated.

The grand jury, however, cast the blame far beyond only those two men. It found that a county housing authority commission and an advisory committee to grapegrowers who helped fund the project did not exercise proper oversight, that the county Conservation, Development and Planning Department issued a building permit based on "a completely inadequate review," and that county officials who had a role in the mess were quick to scapegoat the housing director and finance director.

The good news, said the grand jury, is that the centers provide "a safe, clean and habitable abode for farmworkers," and no individuals appear to have inappropriately profited from the overruns.

The full grand jury report is available at www.napacourt.com/Documents/GJ%20Print%20Copy%20FWH%20Report.pdf.


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