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L.A. County General Plan: First Update in 35 Years

Martha Bridegam on
Apr 28, 2015

In the continuous scrum of Los Angeles County planning, some kind of milestone was reached this spring when the Board of Supervisors formally approved the county's 2035 General Plan update.

The new document is the first comprehensive rewrite of county planning rules since 1980. Among other things, it represents a new focus on the county's urbanized unincorporated areas, as well as more traditional undeveloped areas on the fringe. It is the first L.A. County general plan to take advantage of digital mapping approaches in promoting more consistent groupings of land use policies across multiple properties and types of ownership. It's an approach that meshes well with current state and federal planning processes for alternative energy -- which matters especially because of pressures for solar and wind energy development in the Antelope Valley.

The plan as approved March 24 promotes "smart growth" and energy efficiency, encouraging mixed-use and transit-oriented development with measures that include 11 "Transit Oriented Districts" in half-mile areas around major transit stops with special design standards and development incentives. The plan promotes air quality and climate protections, in part through a Community Climate Action Plan working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The plan looks toward an expansion of Significant Ecological Areas for habitat preservation, updates a Hillside Management Areas ordinance for slopes, creates zones to focus business and industrial growth. A renewable energy ordinance is still in the works to clarify rules for utility-scale wind and solar projects. The county has given effect to these new policies by rezoning more than 4000 parcels for consistency.

The plan primarily affects unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County that house about 1 million of the county's 10 million people. Most of the square mileage is in mountain, desert and military areas in northward parts of the county. But most of the population lives in urban unincorporated areas located near the City of Los Angeles, which is where the TOD areas are located. 

The volatile land use pressures in such areas can be inferred easily enough from the map of unincorporated areas. The city of Santa Clarita stands out as an island just north of the main incorporated cities. The Lancaster/Palmdale area is another island of incorporated territory farther out, flanked by the two protected expanses of Angeles National Forest and wrapped around the off-limits acreage of Edwards Air Force Base. The edges of these outlying incorporated areas are subject to pressure for real estate expansion, though their dryness adds irony to the term "greenfield development". The desert areas that remain in private hands offer attractive sunny and windy conditions for alternative energy installations.

It isn't easy to balance interests in such a place. Irreconcilable tensions persist between developers and environmental advocates and between supporters and opponents of residential density. But Los Angeles County sees less tension than in some neighboring counties between state renewable-energy imperatives and counties' assertion of control over private land. 

The easiest DRECP county

Los Angeles County has achieved a far easier relationship than other counties with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), an effort by state and federal agencies to streamline their renewable energy permitting processes across California's southeastern desert areas.

Among the seven counties in the DRECP planning area, the five inland counties -- Inyo, San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial and Kern -- have objected to the plan's emphasis on using private rather than public land to site large energy facilities. Since large areas of those counties are under federal or other public ownership, local governments have reasserted their claims to taxation and regulatory authority over the privately owned areas where they have some control. San Diego County has less land affected than the others. That leaves Los Angeles County.

Among the seven, only Los Angeles County is in a position to coordinate gracefully with the DRECP process for substantial amounts of expected development. The reason is that L.A. County's unincorporated areas include plenty of taxpaying private property.

Paul McCarthy, who was Regional Planning's Section Head, Impact Analysis, until his retirement in March, represented Los Angeles County Regional Planning in work on the DRECP draft. He said other counties would not want to see additional private lands removed from tax rolls for mitigation or other purposes. Whereas in Los Angeles County, if any land is dedicated to open space (as a mitigation parcel might be), "Oh, everyone's happy."

"Not even half facetiously, I said, look, if you want to make all the mitigation areas come to L.A. County, you can do that." (More seriously, that can't precisely be done because lost habitat has to be replaced with  comparable land -- and not all desert habitats can be found in Los Angeles County, despite climates varying by 10,000 feet of elevation across an area the size of Connecticut.)

As discussed previously in CP&DR, the county's Significant Ecological Areas (SEA), Renewable Energy Ordinance and Antelope Valley Area Plan update all interact with the DRECP plan, and thus far seem to be harmonizing with it.

The SEA approach is analogous to the DRECP in that both plans use conservation overlays to promote connectivity in habitat preservation across multiple types of land ownership.

Susan Tae, the Supervising Regional Planner for Community Studies North, said the SEAs are managed "for cumulative biological value" as a county resource. Los Angeles County's 1980 General Plan had some SEA designations but they were extremely limited. The newer SEA boundaries are larger but allow limited development more flexibly within them, with far greater emphasis on preserving habitat connectivity from one parcel to the next -- whether or not the zoning or ownership varies.

SEA designations are uniquely flexible in that, instead of banning development outright on sensitive private land, they take a harm-reduction type of approach, keeping important vegetation on parts of the property and preserving ways for wildlife to pass through without blocking the economic benefits of ownership outright.

"Everybody understood from the get-go that there was this basic difference" with respect to L.A. County, McCarthy said -- that "we had done a lot of work with the SEAs before we came on board with the DRECP." That meant work such as mapping by biologists had already been done under the long-established SEA program and "we were accustomed to operating with it."

McCarthy said comparable programs had not formed in other DRECP counties. Like Los Angeles County, the inland counties of Imperial, Inyo, Riverside and San Bernardino received California Energy Commission grants to update their general plans for renewable energy production, but McCarthy said that despite "some conversation back and forth" he was "not aware of any conscious effort by another county to imitate us." Which made sense given the differing pressures, eh said.

The timing, however, has been tricky. The four-agency DRECP drafting team had already circulated its draft environmental review document before the SEA boundaries were final. Comment on the DRECP draft closed in February 2015. Accordingly the draft DRECP document, read literally, implied that the state and federal agencies might support utility-scale wind and solar facilities across much of the Antelope Valley in northern Los Angeles County.

McCarthy said "We knew that one of us would get to the finish line first but we didn't know which one would in terms of the DRECP getting out there or us getting our plans adopted."

He said it was at his request that the DRECP draft incorporated the 1980 General Plan's much smaller SEA boundaries into the proposal, in order to avoid "jumping the gun" with new boundaries that might still be changed. "Everybody agreed that when the time came, as soon as they got the update they would change the maps within their documents."

According to Tae and McCarthy, the understanding was that the final DRECP version would avoid the final boundaries of Los Angeles County's SEAs and also its Economic Opportunity Areas. As far as the DRECP agencies were concerned on this arrangement, McCarthy said, "They're very happy. There's no problem with them." 

A work in progress

The new General Plan update builds on important prior approvals and looks toward more that are expected this spring.

The SEA boundaries were chosen partly through a countywide process, but they were negotiated as parts of regional plans for two areas where there is strong pressure for development: the Antelope Valley Area Plan, which won preliminary support from the Supervisors last November, and the Santa Clarita Valley's "One Valley One Vision" area plan, passed in 2012, which includes the area of the massive Newhall Ranch development plan.

Further approvals supporting the General Plan's completion are the county housing element update and the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Plan, both approved last year.

Tae said the new expanded countywide SEA boundaries were approved December 10 by the Regional Planning Commission, then received the Supervisors' initial approval as part of their main General Plan vote in March. The SEA boundaries and the Antelope Valley Area Plan were both awaiting final adoption by the Supervisors. Tae said the implementing SEA Ordinance was off calendar.

The county's Renewable Energy Ordinance, which is designed to work with the DRECP, remains in a regulatory approval process. A draft EIR was posted for comment on February 20. The Regional Planning Commission recommended approval of the proposed ordinance as of April 22. It next goes to the Board of Supervisors.

Tae took care to specify that by proposing detailed regulations for utility-scale wind and solar projects in the proposed ordinance, "the County is not trying to make it easier for those projects." Instead she wrote that the intention was to clarify the requirements to all parties, and she noted each proposed development site is subject to conditional use permit and California Environmental Quality Act review. 

'The blink of an eye'

McCarthy, who retired at the end of March, was interviewed for this story on his last day of work after 47 years of county service, 44 of them with the Department of Regional Planning. Looking back, he spoke with a touch of wonderment about the change wrought in the department by computerization -- a change that's highly visible in the current General Plan update's new approaches.

Originally, McCarthy said, the department had 250 or 275 employees, he said, but the department had come down to 175 or so and it was "producing more" because of computerization, with staff often heading out to community meetings, which they did not use to do.

"When I came in originally," he said, "most employees were World War II vets and they didn't type. The guys, they didn't type. So we had secretaries who did the typing. Today the planner does his own typing, his own proofreading. It's much more efficient." Clerical -- a department then -- would type a document. It would return to the planner for proofing. He would send it back with corrections. And so on.

Comparatively, he said, productivity had increased hugely. Particularly the time it takes to get data onto a map -- "It's just the blink of an eye."

He'd begun work before the 1970 passage of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). At first, he said CEQA environmental impact reports took up six or eight or ten pages. "One of the reasons for that was the limitations of a mimeograph machine," he said. And then -- "All of a sudden someone invented the copy machine and that's when the reports started getting much bigger." Planners started doing their own editing and copying, he said, and the documents ballooned.

On the other hand, McCarthy remembered highly effective and accurate population research reports written long ago by demographer George Morrow, now deceased. In the absence of Internet posting, he said Morrow worked on the phone to the Census Bureau in Washington, forming such warm relationships with Census staff that after retiring he made a social visit to see them in D.C. 

Better mapping, new problems

Better mapping may allow for more nuanced planning, but it also stirs up sleeping issues. Hearings on the General Plan components have been punctuated by public-comment appearances of property owners worried about status changes for individual parcels.

At a Regional Planning Commission hearing last October 8, an example came up of a deferred zoning issue made visible by better mapping. It's presumably not the only one of its kind.

At issue was whether a decision in the 1970s to rezone a North Pasadena property as "open space" was a technological glitch to be undone or an informed policy decision worth keeping. A neighbor, Greg Lasel, liked the "open space" designation as is. He told the Commission the property was mostly a "drainage ravine," so construction there would create drainage and slope stability issues.

Tina Fung, a Senior Regional Planning Assistant working on housing aspects of the General Plan, testified in response that the parcel appeared to have been zoned Open Space for consistency reasons in a temporary urgency ordinance related to the 1980 General Plan. In the new General Plan process, Regional Planning staff proposed an R-1/20,000 zoning designation.

Fung added a comment that pointed to the importance of technological change: "Back in 1970's, because of the lack of technology... our zoning map was pretty much a bubble map, so it wasn't really parcel-based. Now that we have the technology to look at parcel-by-parcel level, then we realize that this is privately owned and there's no dedicated open space there." She displayed an aerial map of nearby parcels, changing the map's scale as she spoke, to support her argument that the sloped parcel was surrounded by residential zoning designations of R-1/20,000 and was not dedicated open space, hence should be rezoned to match its neighbors.

The property, with its alleged ravine, presumably looked much as it did in the 1970s. And the conversation at the hearing didn't resolve Lasel's question. But the system surrounding the question had changed. The data for resolving the problem no longer had to be dug out of paper copies of maps stored at headquarters. The response to it no longer had to be typed out by hand. And sent to the planner for correction. And sent to Clerical again for retyping. By hand.