PART II: Just Saying
No: A Planning Department Horror Story
Responding to longstanding complaints that Santa Monica's
Planning Department is a "bureaucratic maze," the
City Council last week unanimously supported a performance
audit. In the last
of a two-part commentary, Jim Lucas explains why he walked away
from a proposed 500-square-foot addition to his home after investing
15 months and about $30,000 in cash.
By Jim Lucas
Our teenagers, both natives of Santa Monica, were growing restless.
Their crowded bedroom was piled high with art projects, books,
sports gear and things that are best described as stuff. They
needed more room. One thing, however, stood in their way: the
City of Santa Monica’s Planning Department.
All told, in pursuit of the elusive building permit, we spent
more than 15 months actively working with the City of Santa Monica.
The tale of our encounter with the City is an excruciating tale
of delay. It is not marked by outrageous misconduct. Rather,
our project died the death of a thousand cuts. This is sad for
our family and it has broad implications for the character of
Santa Monica in the future.
In November, the City notified us that it could not review our
plans until we submitted several forms. But, here's the thing:
we already had submitted those forms. It appears the City lost
the originals, though the best the staff could do was state “those
documents are unavailable for our review.” So, we provided new
copies, hoping to avoid further and unnecessary delay.
This did not, however, put us back on track for long. It seems
we had failed to write on the plans the name and phone number
of the City Forester (as if the City doesn’t know this number).
Stupidly, we listed this information in a "corrections" document
that the City required.
The City staff, in stalling our review, said our architect "should
have known" to put this information on the plans. It’s unclear
to us where the City says to do such a thing. This much is clear:
this repeated a persistent pattern of relentless and avoidable
delay. We had been ensnared in an extraordinarily capricious
process. In a moment of clarity, we saw we could not rationally
predict when or if our modest project would ever be free of the
City’s practice of unnecessary delay.
From its actions, we infer that the City's staff just does not
want to approve our plans. We haven’t heard anyone say there’s
anything wrong with them, per se. No one even hints that the
addition of a bedroom in the back of a two-bedroom home in an
R-2 multi-family zone might change much of anything. But no one
wants to end the unnecessary delays, either.
We’ve heard theories on why the City just says no.
Maybe the staff just doesn’t like us, despite our efforts to
be friendly (but, wait: should the Planning Department be run
like a high school popularity contest? And, even if they don’t
like us, don’t we have the same rights as others who are more
fashionable or fun?).
Some say the bureaucrats are paralyzed by the fear of being
second-guessed and of making a mistake. I began to appreciate
this view after staying up late to watch the televised Planning
Commission try to micro-manage the design of an alley wall.
Then there’s this comment by an east coast colleague: “It seems
to me that your experience runs counter to basic legal principles
in the two states where I have actually written and enforced
planning and zoning regulations, and also to what I've read about
practices around the country.”
Basically, he said, some cities write rules “to protect citizens
from public officials who are lazy, arbitrary or venal in their
execution (or non-execution) of their duties.” For example, in
one state, once an application is complete, the planners must
respond in a defined period – and if they don’t, approval is
automatic. That won’t work here, of course: with Santa Monica’s
black box of planning rules, no one can honestly know the definition
Finally, some people have suggested that Santa Monica’s Planning
Department is just badly run. In fact, one staffer, in an effort
to be helpful in the final weeks of our disaster, advised me
in a friendly way that “things go even more slowly” when there’s
I observed that things seemed to move slowly in the 15 months
before I thought of complaining – and, to my way of thinking,
this supports the sad conclusion that this department will perform
badly no matter what we do. A friend urged me not to blame individual
planners – he argues they are powerless to change a system that
It’s been said that we could hire lawyers and pick fights with
everyone in sight. To us, that seems to be yet more time and
money, and what do we really accomplish?
They Just Out-Lasted Us
Life's short and the kids already have grown too big for this
small house. It's time for us to get on with life. Besides, at
the current pace, we aren’t sure we could complete our new bedroom
in time for our kids’ high school graduations.
So, rather than fight, we’re making an ill-timed entry into
the condo market. If anyone knows of something with three bedrooms,
keep us in mind: we’re motivated buyers and we try to be good
But, as we move on, we know others remain behind. The City’s
bad process raises barriers to modest improvements like the ones
we proposed. This limits the choices for the owners of the few
remaining “working-class dream homes” in the R-2 zones of Santa
Monica’s eastern edge.
These single-family homes are a part of Santa Monica’s legacy.
A generation ago, our house was one of many “dream homes” for
workers at places like the old Douglas Aircraft plant. Today,
it is one of just three remaining single-family homes on our
In our over-heated real estate market, small and unimproved
homes in R2 zones simply do not command enough value to withstand
the irresistible demand for aggressively priced condos with more
space and amenities than could be imagined a generation ago.
It seems our City Council has debated deep into the night every
law except the Law of Unintended Consequences.
This is a sad time for our family, having wasted so much time
and money in a failed effort to make our modest but much-loved
home sustainable for the long term. But it’ll be a truly sad
day if the people of Santa Monica continue to tolerate a government
that behaves so badly.
(Eds. Note: Jim Lucas has lived in Santa Monica since the mid-1980s.
He and his wife bought their home on Santa Monica's eastern edge
while expecting their first child, who now attends Santa Monica