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Happy Thanksgiving and be Thankful the Planning Commission can't Continue it
By Frank Gruber
Something to be thankful for today as well as Thursday: a city that wasn't intimidated by the oil companies that contaminated our water.
You may have heard the joke that there's nothing funnier than a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Yes, it's a cruel joke with no redeeming social value -- one I would never tell, of course.
Instead, what I like to say is that there's nothing funnier than a libertarian who lives next to a toxic waste dump.
Let's hear it for government. Who else is going to outlast Shell Oil in a lawsuit?
It's not only, or even so much, those crusaders we elect to office, but the bureaucrats. Not to slight the job our elected officials, the Santa Monica City Council, did in pursuing Santa Monica's claims against the oil companies, but the council's essential role was to lead the cheers and encourage from the side lines. Our offensive line and backfield rolled up in one were the staffers -- including Public Works and the City Attorney's office.
While we're at it, how about a cheer for product liability lawyers, too -- specifically the outside specialists the City sensibly retained for this complex and ground-breaking (no pun intended) litigation.
Santa Monica also received help from federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board
When you hear politicians or pundits going on about how government needs to do everything to improve the business climate, remember how Santa Monica got its water back.
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If, since last week's column, you have been wondering what would happen when the Planning Commission took up the appeal of the Architectural Review Board's approval of an addition to the house at 18 Seaview Terrace, wonder on.
The Commission continued the hearing two weeks because the appellants, Joyce Syme and John Oursland, said they weren't ready -- more than three months after they filed their appeal.
What happened was that it took one of them, Ms. Syme, two months, until mid-October, to hire a lawyer. This lawyer, one D. P. Sindicich, has offices in Santa Monica but apparently doesn't know enough about planning practice to know that to view files, obtain copies, and otherwise get information on a case, one contacts the planner assigned to the case and either makes an appointment, or asks for the case file to be left at the front desk of the planning department.
Instead, Mr. Sindicich filed a request under the California equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act. These requests are always kicked up to the City Attorney's office and take more time.
Because Ms. Syme took so long to retain him, Mr. Sindicich didn't even request documents until October 20. He asked for huge amounts of material -- more than 1,000 pages, much of it having to do with issues, such as environmental review, that are irrelevant to ARB proceedings.
Mr. Sindicich also insisted he needed to make a transcript of the audio tape of the ARB hearing. This is something most people consider useless when the Planning Commission hears an ARB appeal. The Commission hears the appeal "de novo," meaning that the ARB discussion is essentially irrelevant.
Nonetheless, on November 3, the City Attorney's office responded that documents were available for pick up, upon payment of the required fees.
Eight days before the scheduled date of the hearing, on November 11, however, Mr. Sindicich asked staff for a continuance, claiming that he only had a week to review the documents and that he was having trouble transcribing the tape of the ARB hearing. Mr. Sindicich had, however, blown a deadline -- by law, staff cannot grant a continuance within ten days of a publicly noticed hearing.
So Mr. Sindicich had to ask the Planning Commission itself for a continuance. As usual, the Commission paid little attention to either the law or the advice it received from staff about the law.
Once a hearing has been noticed to the public, the grounds for granting a continuance are extremely limited. The Commission may only grant a continuance if the reasons for it could not reasonably have been foreseen and planned for, and the Commission may not grant a continuance merely for reasons of convenience, or because an applicant has voluntarily changed lawyers.
Given Ms. Syme's delay in hiring Mr. Sindicich, and his ineptitude, it's a long stretch to see how there were substantive grounds for the Commission to delay the proceedings. But Mr. Sindicich's plea should have been doomed procedurally in any case, because by law not even the Commission itself may grant a continuance requested on fewer than ten days' notice unless "urgent conditions" precluded giving the ten days.
I.e., no matter what the Commission thought of the merits of the request, given that there was no "urgent condition" that precluded Mr. Sindicich from requesting a continuance more than ten days before the hearing -- obviously, if he was going to have a problem with documents he should have known that by November 9 -- the Commission had no authority under the law to grant the continuance.
The only other factor that came up at the hearing was that the appellants, Ms. Syme and Mr. Oursland, told the Commission that they had only received copies of the staff report the day before. The Commission's clerk was adamant that she had mailed them copies more than a week earlier, but no one asked Syme and Oursland how often they check their mail, or asked them to show the postmarks, or asked them why they hadn't bothered to obtain a copy themselves from the planning office or download one from the web.
Nor did anyone note that this was a staff report that could be read in fifteen minutes, and which, in any case, was substantively the same as the staff report for the original ARB hearing.
Instead, the Commission, on a 5 to 1 vote continued the hearing for two weeks on the motion of Julie Lopez Dad, a commissioner known to consult on code enforcement issues with Stephanie Barbanell, the anti-development activist who lives next door to 18 Seaview Terrace and opposes the addition. Commissioner Terry O'Day was the only commissioner who paid attention to what the rules are and voted against Commissioner Dad's motion.
By continuing the item, the Commission majority not only showed its customary hostility to planning staff, by heavily implying that staff had screwed up the delivery of the staff report to the appellants, but also rewarded (i) egregious behavior on the part of appellant Syme, who sat on her hands for two months before retaining a lawyer, and (ii) ignorance on her lawyer's part.
The unconscionable delays involved with design review even in the best circumstances are bad enough without the Commission adding to them. The ARB approved the plans for this project August 4. Ms. Syme and Mr. Oursland appealed within ten days, as required by ordinance, yet the property owners had to wait more than another three months for the appeal to appear on the Planning Commission's agenda.
Now they will wait two more weeks.
Does anyone know what a four-month delay, on top of the ARB process itself, is like to a family trying to build an addition? You're talking a minimum six months just for design review.
Yet, as appeals back up, the Planning Commission has had only one extra meeting since the beginning of August.
Now who is representing residents?
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