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He Fought City Hall's Planners; Now He Is One

A longtime critic of a Valley planning commission says his years as a homeowners' advocate has prepared him for his new post

November 14, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

So now what is Gordon Murley supposed to do when he has a beef with the South Valley Regional Planning Commission -- look in a mirror?

Well, yes.

The San Fernando Valley activist, for decades a fierce critic of the Los Angeles Planning Department, recently moved to the other side of the podium as a member of the South Valley Regional Planning Commission, a recent appointee of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

So instead of panning the commissioners' decisions, he will be sitting there as one of them.

Murley said he does not anticipate conflict as a result of his sudden role reversal. If anything, he said, his decades of studying development proposals, zoning variances and building codes, and attending meetings make him uniquely qualified to perform the job.

"I was asked by the mayor to be part of it," said Murley, who attended his first meeting as a commissioner Oct. 27. "Since I think highly of Antonio, I said, 'OK, if you think I can serve.' "

Murley first burst onto the scene in 1983 when he and other residents, upset over extremely large homes being built on tiny lots, formed the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization to lobby for development restrictions.

The group's work led to the passage of Los Angeles' historic "mansionization" law, which limits the size of houses that can be built on residential lots.

He also was a strong advocate for city limits restricting housing density on hillside slopes and for adoption of the city's first specific plan for a neighborhood, a document that sets guidelines for development within a defined area.

He said all this led him to learn firsthand how the city's planning process works.

"I studied and asked people questions and got to know important people in the city," he said. "I bought a city code book so I would know what the heck was coming up. Zoning administrators were willing to discuss things with me. It was like taking a graduate course."

After serving as the first president of the homeowners' association, Murley was elected president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Associations, an organization of homeowners' groups in the Valley.

One of Murley's longest-running battles was the Warner Ridge project near Warner Center, where a developer sued the city for the right to build a mixed-use complex on the site. Murley expressed concern that the judge would rule in the developer's favor.

"I guess the judge is saying it's all right to screw up civilization," Murley said in 1990. "Doesn't he know about the law of physics that says no two things can occupy the same space? How the hell are you going to put all the cars this project will generate on the streets when they're already congested?"

Murley said recently that he was upset at the time because the city had rezoned the land from office use to residential use, skirting its own rules.

"You can't do a zone change without a plan amendment," Murley said. "That's not fair to the taxpayers."

He also found himself at odds with former City Atty. James K. Hahn, before he became mayor. Murley complained that Hahn did not aggressively enforce the city's oak protection law.

"I found out how totally uncooperative the ex-mayor was as city attorney," he said. "He didn't understand planning at all. It was really an uphill battle to get anything done."

As for other leaders' planning records, Murley called former Mayor Tom Bradley's "pretty good," but said former Mayor Richard Riordan's was not so impressive.

Murley said a planning commissioner should not be swayed by friend or foe of a project but should ask questions that will lead to the best decision for the community.

"Developers sometimes come in and want things they have no right to have and expect us to give them our blessing anyway," he said.

"All we're asking them to do are the things we have a right to ask them to do," he said." Community groups come in and say they don't want something, but they have to tell us what they think it ought to be."

As a commissioner, Murley said, his job is to listen more than speak.

"You have to be a listener and hear what people are trying to say," the retired salesman said. "They romance the facts in sales, but that doesn't necessarily mean you have to buy what their romance is."

But former Councilman Marvin Braude, who appointed Murley to a task force studying traffic congestion on Ventura Boulevard in 1987, frequently fought Murley. He said he did not think the job would be a good fit.

"He's a kvetch and a nuisance," Braude said.

"He doesn't have the temperament for dealing with people in a reasonable fashion. I think it's a poor appointment. He's a very aggressive activist and it's easy for people in power to be impressed by somebody like him."

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