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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 of “complete.”

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 a complaint.

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 doesn’t work.

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 neighbors.

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 street.

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 High.)
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