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Now, Then, Where Were We?

By Frank Gruber

Although on September 11 City Manager Susan McCarthy admirably set the tone for the City by insisting that the public's business should continue as usual, I am only now ready to make my contribution to the national recovery by resuming my fulminations over Kelly Olsen, chair of the Planning Commission.

In my September 7 column I discussed comments Olsen made in an interview in Santa Monica Bay Week castigating the "old" Planning Commission, which included me, and planning staff. He accused the old commission of rubber stamping the plans of developers, and he accused staff of facilitating development to the extent of bending the law.

I suggested that Olsen might provide evidence of such conduct, or even allegations of a specific incident, but so far neither Olsen nor anyone else has done so.

Which hardly surprises me. Olsen has a history of grandstanding and making overblown and intemperate comments, beginning with overstatements of his own accomplishments both politically and professionally.

So you say, "What's the point?" Olsen is and will remain who he's been for all the years he's been involved in Santa Monica politics. Santa Monica is still a wonderful place.

To some extent, my motivation to continue this discussion arises from personal bewilderment. Perhaps I lack self-awareness, but I am astounded when Olsen says the old commission focussed on the "quality [of] life for the developers," or made decisions "behind closed doors," or when Planning Commissioner Julie Lopez Dad says the public didn't "have enough access for input," or when Councilman Ken Genser implies the commission was not "respectful of neighbors and neighborhoods." (These quotes appeared in news reports.)

Of course not everyone was ever pleased all the time, and sometimes tempers flared, but I cannot remember any time when anyone on the commission was disrespectful of anyone who appeared before us. I would be very interested if anyone could cite an example.

I know that if I had shown any disrespect, the four people who chaired the Commission during my tenure -- Ken Breisch, Eric Parlee, John Zinner and Kathy Weremiuk -- would have let me know it. They are among the more decent people you will find in Santa Monica, even if you disagree with their views.

I enjoyed my years (1995-99) on the Planning Commission immensely. Perhaps because we were in a recession for most of the time I was a member, and there was not much private development to consider, we worked on challenging projects, such as revisions of the Housing, Circulation, and Open Space Elements of the General Plan, the Recreation and Parks Master Plan, the non-aviation land at the airport, the BIG projects on the beach, the Downtown Plan, 415 PCH, the north of Montana development standards, etc., etc.

There were issues that were controversial, such as the rebuilding of St. John's Hospital, extending the hours of Pacific Park, allowing second units in R-1 districts, changing the uses at Edgemar, and reviewing various conditional use permit (CUP) applications for alcohol sales. Although there was not much in the way of new private development, there were affordable housing projects like Menorah Housing, which was controversial because of its impact on a public parking lot.

By 1998, developers started proposing various small condominium projects, and although the applications for CUPs to permit these projects rarely aroused opposition from immediate neighbors, perceptions developed in the community that (i) a lot of affordable rental housing was being lost to make way for the condos, (ii) a lot of development was occurring in residential areas.

Although I would argue that both these perceptions were wrong, it must have been the granting of these CUPs that stoked the ire of the self-nominated guardians of the "residential community." When City Council appointed Geraldine Moyle and Julie Lopez Dad to the Planning Commission, Moyle said, speaking of the old commission, "CUPs [were] given out like candy on Halloween," and Dad said, speaking of the new, "We're not obligated in any way to say yes by right ... There'll be no rubber stamping."

There's that rubber word again. My recollection is that both staff and the Commission were always cautious about approving anything, even applications that appeared on the consent calendar, but perhaps I am wrong. Once again, I wonder if Moyle or Dad could cite one instance where the old commission granted a CUP casually, or otherwise without regard to the facts.

But it is true that the Planning Commission then and now has a lot of discretion when it comes to approving or denying CUPs. The law says that although the Commission is to use "fixed and established standards," the Commission must balance "the public need for and benefit to be derived from the use against any adverse impact it may cause," and, in addition to satisfying a host of specific requirements, any proposed use must "not be detrimental to the public interest, health, safety, convenience, or general welfare."

In practice, these latter two standards are subjective, and in their interpretation I will admit to a difference in philosophy. That difference is based on a different understanding of the law.

Uses that are "conditionally permitted" are not described in the law as in any way bad, noxious, or evil -- only that they are uses that "have some special impact or uniqueness such that their effect on the surrounding environment cannot be determined in advance of the use being proposed for a particular location." A school or a library, or housing in the form of condominiums, are uses that require CUPs.

Olsen, Moyle and Dad seem to be saying, however, that any use that requires a CUP is suspect, that "giving them out" must be bad. They would substitute the subjective judgment of the Planning Commission about what "should be built" for the substance of the public documents -- not only the zoning ordinance, but also the General Plan and other planning instruments -- that the City has developed, through arduous public process, to guide development.

This is a matter of due process, not only for property owners and developers, but also for the public that participated in the process that led to, or whose representatives voted on, the laws that establish existing development standards.

Over the years and particularly in the past 20, the City has engaged in extensive public processes to reduce development standards. I happen to believe that the standards the City has adopted are generally good, and that the proof is in the pudding -- the desire people have to live in Santa Monica, the quality of our life, and the quality of our economy.

What we see now is that some residents and politicians, who purport to speak for everyone, do not accept those standards. They do not believe they are restrictive enough. They want to use the subjective interpretation of words like "general welfare" and "adverse impact" to prevent development that is consistent with the standards the community has established but inconsistent with their own desires.

This is not only a due process problem, but also a democracy problem.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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