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Tangled Los Angeles permit process has restaurant owners howling

Could there be simpler means to a similar end, especially for small restaurants? City Councilman Eric Garcetti thinks so.

February 18, 2009|Jessica Gelt

On 1,100 square feet of land, there aren't many places large enough to bury a 9,000-pound concrete box the size of a minivan. Jason Michaud knew as much when the city of Los Angeles asked him to do just that.

Michaud was in the process of opening his first restaurant, a small neighborhood joint in Silver Lake called Local. The concrete box was the housing for a 750-gallon grease trap -- called an interceptor -- and as a result of a lawsuit filed against the city in 2001 by environmental regulators and concerned environmental groups, the placement of such a device is mandatory for all new restaurants.

The space required for Michaud's own grave would be much smaller, and at times he felt as if he were digging that too, figuratively at least. The hillside behind the property has an apartment building perched at its top, and at the time, the hill was not properly retained. Michaud hired an engineer to take a look, and the engineer wrote a letter to the city saying that it wasn't safe to dig a hole that big. The city then sent out one of its own engineers, who decided that it was.

"They said I had the space, even if I had to reinforce the hill, which would have cost $300,000," Michaud says. "So we took a gamble and put the interceptor in." The hill stayed put (and Michaud's landlords eventually reinforced it), but the restaurant's opening was delayed by eight months.

Now, five months after the opening of Local (which emphasizes local ingredients and sustainable living and tries to encourage patrons to use public transit or bicycles when visiting), he is pitted in a costly battle with the city over parking spaces. Michaud says he believed that because the restaurant was counter-service only, he didn't need them. The city allowed the restaurant to open, but then came back with a later request that he offer parking.

"I need to find someone to rent me four spaces and hang a sign that says, 'Parking for Local,' " says Michaud, who estimates the spots will cost an additional $2,000 a month, and that the permitting process -- fees, the costs of architects and contractors, and rent paid before the business could open -- will set him back more than $10,000. "It's a terrible, broken system, trying to open a restaurant. It devastates people."

This sentiment is echoed by restaurant owners across the city, who say that in its quest to ensure public safety and uphold environmental standards, the local government has constructed a Byzantine system of codes, permits and inspections that has obstructed the growth of new restaurants, tied business owners' hands -- sometimes to the point where the business has to close -- and has driven developers to seek work outside city limits.

Many of those who complain about the process go to great lengths to point out that they understand why protective rules are needed. (Michaud even admits that, now that it's over, he's happy he has a grease interceptor, because it ties into the restaurant's image of sustainability.)

City regulations

Their beef is with inspectors who rigidly adhere to a one-size-fits-all application of codes and with the lack of communication between regulatory agencies. The latter can cause an inspector from the health department to sign off on, say, having an open drain behind a bar, and a plumbing inspector to demand a month later that the drain be closed.

When a business owner is faced with contradictory demands from the dozen agencies involved in the permitting process, things can get messy and expensive. (The L.A. departments of City Planning, Building and Safety, Transportation [for parking], the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation and the L.A. County Department of Public Health are the big five.)

That's not to say that codes and ordinances aren't passed with good reason. Since interceptors were required, sewer overflows related to grease have gone from nearly 300 a year to fewer than 20 in L.A.

But could there be a cheaper, less frustrating means to a similar end, especially for small restaurants?

Sherrill Bond, whose job it is to administer the fats, oil and grease program for the Bureau of Sanitation, says his opinion doesn't matter much. "I'm bound to administer the ordinance . . . I don't get an opportunity to have feelings."

That's why, City Councilman Eric Garcetti says, flexibility needs to be encouraged -- within reason and without jeopardizing public safety -- when it comes to code regulation. "L.A. has become one of the great food capitals of the world, but this has happened despite government, not because of it," he says. "Planning in L.A. is a full-contact sport."

In response to what Garcetti described as a particularly out-of-hand battle in 2006 between a tiny bakery in Echo Park and the city (which was asking the bakery to install a grease interceptor and build subterranean parking), the councilman began pushing through an initiative called "12-2," which aims to downsize the number of government agencies a new business has to interact with from 12 to two.

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