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Give Citizens a Role in L.A.'s Growth : Excluded as They Are, They Naturally Become Obstructionist

September 07, 1986|DAN SHAPIRO | Dan Shapiro, who practices law in Encino, is the president of the Studio City Residents' Assn. and the chairman of the Planning Commission's Citizen Advisory Committee

The passage of Proposition 13 and rent control laws have led to greater population stability in Los Angeles, simply because moving one's home now results in substantial tax or rent increases.

These economic incentives to remain in one place, combined with the natural desire to improve one's environment, have translated themselves into political consequences for city government. Citizens are no longer passive, having little or no relationship to their neighborhood. They now have a stake in their community, are interested in what's happening and are willing to mobilize in large numbers to protect their neighborhoods and homes.

Yet despite this greater level of citizen involvement, the city's decisions are generally made with little or no local input. This is particularly true of planning, those decisions that typically generate the most local controversy.

A bit of history is appropriate. In 1946, Los Angeles first zoned itself for a population capacity of over 10 million. Then from 1968 to 1972, the city went through a general plan revision process.

The city was divided into 35 community plan areas and a Citizens' Advisory Committee was appointed for each area. With the assistance of the Planning Department staff, these committees of unpaid volunteers met weekly or biweekly over a two-year period to develop their particular community plan. This process did not involve simply reviewing maps, but consisted of extensive trips through the communities to observe the impact of planning decisions and to conduct discussions with groups and individuals who would be affected. As a result, the general plan called for a down zoning of the population capacity of the city to 4.5 million.

Although the plan was "adopted" by a City Council resolution, the council and the mayor took no legal steps to implement the down zoning. State law at the time required every city's zoning to comply with the general plan. Los Angeles ignored it.

The state then passed a law specifically requiring Los Angeles to bring its zoning into general plan compliance by 1982. Still, Los Angeles refused to comply. Development contrary to the general plan was rampant. The council and the mayor simply lacked the political will to resolve the problem.

In the meantime the general plan languished, despite a state law that requires it to be updated every five years.

After years of frustration, citizens' groups in 1985 finally took matters into their own hands. They went to court and obtained an order forcing the city to bring its zoning into compliance with the general plan. The city's solution has been unique, to say the least. Instead of down zoning, it is revising the plan in many areas of Los Angeles in order for it to comply with dense zoning. The cynicism of the process astounds even hardened political observers.

It is no wonder the citizens are upset with planning, the one aspect of local government that truly impacts their daily lives. Planning has seemingly come to a standstill, characterized by fitful stops and starts, periodic moratoriums, frustrated investments and general dissatisfaction on all sides. Rather than being a constructive force for beneficial improvements, the citizen strikes out against virtually all changes in the status quo.

A solution does exist: decentralization of the decision-making process. Establishment of community planning boards in each of the 35 community plan areas can go a long way to harnessing the energy that citizens groups currently expend fighting projects.

By channeling that energy into "pro-active" rather than "reactive" activities, the boards should become a constructive force for change.

The boards should be made of residents of the community and should be elected and appointed in approximately equal numbers. The members would be charged with updating the general plan, holding hearings on plan and zone changes and advising their council member concerning necessary improvements in the district.

By bringing certainty and continued citizen input into the planning process, the boards will serve the vitally important purpose of validating planning and generating the political consensus necessary to accommodate the natural growth that will occur in Los Angeles.

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