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Planning Commission Preps for Launch of Land Use Update

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

October 12 -- At an unusual Saturday morning meeting attended by half a dozen residents, the Planning Commission called for a better public process when the City updates its 20-year-old zoning and traffic plan.

Debating its role and that of the public in the estimated two-year process, the commission agreed it should take a lead role in overhauling the plans, which regulate everything from building heights and traffic flows to where housing can be developed.

"A vast amount of the city is really on the table," Commissioner Jay Johnson said after the meeting.

Vice Chair Darrell Clarke called the process a "once-in-20-years opportunity to rethink" the City's zoning and traffic ordinances.

The meeting was announced with only three days notice to give the commission time to prepare for a joint session with the City Council and City consultants on October 26, said Chair Barbara Brown, who called for the meeting.

Brown added that the commission wanted to hold the meeting as early as possible to allow time for another study session, if needed, before the joint meeting later this month.

Some members of the public, however, expressed concern about the short notice, which fulfills government requirements but seemed to strike some residents as insufficient.

"If we're really interested in hearing from the community, three days' notice, I think, is not sufficient," said Allen Freeman, a smart growth advocate who lives in the city. "I just heard about it in an email yesterday. We need to notice these things better so people can fit them into their busy schedules."

Johnson said one reason the commissioners held the special meeting was that many felt their input had so far had minimal impact on City consultants, who will be steering much of the update process.

The commissioners noted at the meeting that the City Charter and other documents mandate that the commission lead the general plan update.

"Many of us have been very unhappy with how they (meetings with the consultants) have been handled," Johnson said. "We go through and say what we want, and they go back and write what they want. There's no teeth in the meeting."

Johnson said the commission wanted to ensure that input - both from the commission and from the public -- was truly considered in what he called an "overwhelmingly fundamental" process. He said he believed the consultants' proposed plan for collecting public input was not entirely sufficient.

"They know how important it (public input) is, but the way it (the consultants' proposal) was structured was not as proper as some of us thought it should be," Johnson said.

Although the consultants -- Dyett & Bhatia -- proposed a "Scope of Work" includes 40 community briefings, 14 public hearings and various other surveys and focus groups, that may not be adequate, Johnson said.

"There are flaws in the public process, in my opinion," he said. "Just because there's a lot of it doesn't mean it's good."

Johnson and other commissioners have emphasized teaching the public about their choices and providing "feedback loops" that allow residents to give preliminary input and then revisit issues later in the process. He has also been advocating for straw poles at public meetings and broadening the limited focus groups the consultants have proposed.

Brown said she would emphasize in her summary to the council that the public should be educated about the process and then heard before major decisions are made, so they "have not just a say, but a meaningful and informed say."

The commissioners urged the public to get involved in the process they say could shape the face of the city.

"A lot of the feeling is this is a special beach town," Clarke said. "It's very much my opinion that we want to protect what's special about Santa Monica," he said, suggesting residents try to envision how they'd like to see Santa Monica in twenty years.

About seven members of the public attended the meeting, which was announced at the commission's regular Wednesday meeting last week. If their comments are any indication, one major issue in the land use update will be building height.

Resident Ellen Brennan, who is vice chair of the city's Pier Restoration Corporation, held up sketches of different skylines to illustrate her opinion that Santa Monica's buildings should not get any taller.

"People in Santa Monica still have an attachment to this being a beach community, and if you start building the buildings higher, that charm disappears," she said.

Brown said after he meeting -- which was not videotaped -- that she would be writing a summary to be forwarded to the council before the joint session. It will likely include a request for a small budget for such items as books, suggestions on gathering public input and a request that the council "affirm and approve" a leading role for the commission.





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