May 8, 2014 - From the May, 2014 issue

Coastal Land Use Plan Approval—A Victory for Santa Monica Mountains and Zev Yaroslavsky

On April 10, the Coastal Commission approved the Land Use Plan for the unincorporated area of the Santa Monica Mountains. This step—following the LA County Board of Supervisors’ LUP approval in February—constituted a significant accomplishment for those working over decades to protect this five-mile portion of the Santa Monica Mountains, since it sets the stage to certify the Local Coastal Program. LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky spoke with TPR about the efforts to draft an LUP that satisfied all stakeholders, the impact of its approval, and the steps still necessary to ensure that the mountains flourish in the future.


"This plan is plugging a huge hole. For the Santa Monica Mountains to remain the largest area in the state’s coastal zone without an approved and certified local coastal plan is a cloud hanging over the environment of this part of the state. " —Zev Yaroslavsky

Zev, the effort to preserve the Santa Monica Mountains has gone on for more than four decades, as Jon Christensen and Mark Gold opined in LA Observed. Elaborate on the California Coastal Commission board actions in mid-April and their significance for the goal of having a local coastal plan approved.

The unincorporated area of the Santa Monica Mountains is the largest part of the Coastal Zone of California that has no approved coastal plan. The April 10 unanimous decision by the Coastal Commission was a historic one because it sets the stage for the final approval of the local costal plan for 52,000 acres, half of which are privately owned and are among the most beautiful coastal lands in the State of California—certainly the most beautiful lands in close proximity to a metropolitan area.

The Santa Monica Mountains are part of a National Recreation Area—there’s a national park and a state park there. The open spaces there are beautiful; the ridgelines are majestic; the canyons are deep and sweeping; the rivers and creeks, when we have rain, are actually beautiful and robust; and the oak woodlands and the sycamores are among the most significant in the entire state. Preserving this area for future generations has been the lifelong goal of many elected officials, going back to Tony Beilenson, Marvin Braude, Alan Sieroty, Terry Friedman, Henry Waxman, and Howard Berman.

We’ve established a plan that is designed to protect the very nature of the Santa Monica Mountains, which have attracted so many people to live, hike, and recreate.

What are you protecting the Santa Monica Mountains from?

We’re protecting it from senseless and irresponsible development. We are protecting the ridgelines from being sawed off. We’re protecting the oak groves and the sycamore groves from being destroyed. We’re protecting the rivers and rivulets from being polluted. We’re also protecting the Santa Monica Bay from being polluted by upstream pollutants. Basically, we’re protecting it from ourselves.

My philosophy has always been to let the terrain dictate the development, not the other way around. People who own private property have a right to use it, but they don’t have a right to destroy the very thing that attracted them in the first place. A property owner who owns a large piece of property that includes ridgelines doesn’t have to have his home on top of the ridgeline. In order to build a home on top of the ridgeline, you have to saw off a big chunk of the mountain in order to create a big enough pad to build a home. It’s environmentally more sound to build that home off the ridgeline in a manner that is compatible with the terrain, not in a way that destroys it.

This plan achieves that more than any other single plan in the history of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

Zev, the adopted land use plan amends the local coastal program. Address the interdependence of the adopted plan, the local coastal program, and its implementation.

There is no local coastal plan that’s been certified for the unincorporated areas of the Santa Monica Mountains. Back in 1986, there was a plan that was approved by the Coastal Commission but was not approved by the Board of Supervisors, so you had a disconnect between what the Coastal Commission said the plan was and what the County of Los Angeles said the plan was.

This plan was approved by the Board of Supervisors in February. It was approved on April 10 by the Coastal Commission, with some relatively minor modifications, which will come back to the Board of Supervisors sometime this summer for approval. The Coastal Commission process is a two-step process. What was approved on April 10 was the LUP—the Land Use Plan. In June, the Coastal Commission will consider the Local Implementation Plan—the LIP. Assuming it approves that, then it will be sent back to the Board of Supervisors for final concurrence. I’m hopeful that we’ll have an affirmative vote from the Coastal Commission in June and the Board of Supervisors this summer. 

Elaborate on the evolving process of drafting these plans and having them adopted over a period of decades. Give us an insight into how the planning evolved, what is involved in its adoption, what the obstacles have been, and what success looks like.

This is a very complicated plan, and most coastal plans are. I’ve been actively working on this plan for over a decade, and in a broader sense, my entire 20 years as County Supervisor. It involves bringing together different stakeholders—environmentalists, agricultural interests, real estate interests, equestrian interests, and residential interests. To synthesize the interests of all of these stakeholders is more complicated than a Mahler symphony.

We were able to do this over a period of years, gaining the confidence of most, if not all, of the stakeholders. And we were able to go to the Coastal Commission on April 10 with a largely united community supporting the plan. There were some opponents, but they were outliers. The Coastal Commission itself, which is made up of commissioners who have divergent points of view, voted unanimously to approve it, which was a remarkable achievement on everybody’s part. It’s a long slog and we worked hard on it. We had very good cooperation with the Coastal Commission staff, which was a relatively new phenomenon for us. Dr. Charles Lester and Jack Ainsworth—Lester is the executive director of the Coastal Commission and Ainsworth is the senior deputy director—were extremely cooperative and collaborative with us. They didn’t get everything they wanted, and we didn’t get everything that we wanted. Nobody got 100 percent of what they wanted, but everybody got 80 or 90 percent, and that makes the plan a win-win.

I like to say, Ty Cobb batted 400 and he’s in the hall of fame. Everybody in this exercise batted at least 800, and it certainly is a noteworthy achievement. 

What is the actual significance of adopting a multi-year, multi-decade coastal plan? How might term limits and low voter turnouts affect the implementation of this and similar long-range plans in the future?

I sure hope that most plans don’t take a decade or more—in this case, 30 years—to come to fruition. Frankly, I think that anybody who seeks to represent the area of the Santa Monica Mountains, whether it’s at the state, federal, or the county level, needs to understand that this is a precious resource that the public will demand be preserved and protected.

The fact is that future generations deserve the opportunity to experience and enjoy this national park and recreation area to the same extent as those of us who are alive today got to experience it. Future generations will never forgive us if we don’t provide them that opportunity. This plan is plugging a huge hole. For the Santa Monica Mountains to remain the largest area in the state’s coastal zone without an approved and certified local coastal plan is a cloud hanging over the environment of this part of the state.

We’re fortunate that more damage hasn’t been done in this part of the county. The cities of Calabasas, Agoura Hills, and Westlake Village were carved out of the Santa Monica Mountains in the 1980s. Absent the plan that protects these mountains, a good part of the rest of the mountains could have become Calabasas-ized or Agoura-ized—i.e. subdivided. I have spent the lion’s share of the 20 years that I’ve represented the area trying to minimize the number of subdivisions. You can count them on less than one hand, and they’ve been small. Most of them were leftovers from previous administrations. This plan protects these features, which are so unique.

Fifteen million people are within an hour’s drive of the Santa Monica Mountains recreation area. Wildlife is coming back. Mountain lions are back. Deer are doing better than ever. Species of fish that have been absent from the Santa Monicas for decades are now coming back. It’s a regenerating ecosystem that is unique on the planet. It’s worth protecting, and it’s worth preserving. The residents—not only of the Santa Monica Mountains, but all over Southern California—will be the victors when this plan is finally certified.

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There is another significant aspect to the plan. Right now, when you don’t have a certified coastal plan, a property owner in the subject area has to apply to the local jurisdiction, which in this case is the County of Los Angeles, for a building permit. The property owner jumps through all the hoops to get that permit and then has to go to the Coastal Commission for a second round to apply for the same permit, almost like a bi-cameral legislature. Oftentimes, especially when you don’t have an approved coastal plan, what the county approves may not be approved by Coastal. What Coastal approves may not be approved by the county. It makes a permit-application process interminably long, costly, and unpredictable.

With this plan in place, the property owners in the Santa Monica Mountains will only have to go to the County of Los Angeles, because the county is the local government that oversees this unincorporated area and is the only governmental entity that has jurisdiction over land-use in that area. You’ll go to the County of Los Angeles, your local elected official, your local planning commission, and your local building inspector—everything will be done locally by people who understand the plan, terrain, and area.

Once you get your permit, you’re largely done. This will consolidate all of the decision making and enforcement under the rubric of the County of Los Angeles, and it will be better for all concerned—better for the property owners, better for the tax payers, and, of course, because of the nature of this plan, it’s particularly better for the environment and ecosystem.

Given that stewardship of the plan is with the county, and given that you are now termed out after two decades in office, are you comfortable that your legacy will only be enhanced by one of them? Is implementation at risk going forward?

I think that the two major candidates are both knowledgeable about the Santa Monica Mountains. Both of them supported the local coastal plan at the April 10 Coastal Commission meeting, and I have confidence that they will carry it on and improve upon what we’ve done. There’s no shortage of work for future generations of public officials to acquire more land, to protect more of the natural resources in the mountains, and I expect that whoever wins is going to make this a top environmental priority. It’s the most important environmental geography of the third Supervisorial district. The Santa Monica Mountains, the National Recreation Area, and its environs are the most important environmental resource in the area and in the district—and, of course, it’s one of the most important in the state of California. I expect that the two or three major candidates will carry on the tradition.

Zev, your long tenure in public office, the tenure of Joe Edmiston at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, the tenure of the congressional delegation, and many of the local leaders that have been involved allowed the coastal protection plans to evolve and find political consensus. With term limits in the city and the county, will it be more difficult going forward to find like political leadership and consistent stewardship for such initiatives?

I don’t think it’s a disaster that people move on and do other things. I think it’s been an advantage to the Santa Monica Mountains that we’ve had a group of elected officials and appointed officials who’ve been around a while and know the terrain, who have learned from their mistakes, and who don’t make them twice.

We have an incredible coalition of elected officials. Fran Pavley, the state senator from the area, who is in a very key position in Sacramento, helped us acquire land. She’s been an environmental champion all of her life. Henry Waxman, who represents that area in Congress, is a legend in the US House. Joe Edmiston has been there for more than three decades as the executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy—he’s a walking encyclopedia on the mountains and is very shrewd, strategic, and tactical in protecting the resources that we have. I think I’ve also brought something to the table over these 20 years.

When the state, federal, and local officials get together, we leave our government emblems at the door. We sit around the table like knights at the Round Table, and we figure out how to solve a problem. If there’s property that we need to acquire, we find a way to do it. We’re in the midst of doing that on a couple of very important properties right now that will be important acquisitions if we can pull them off, and I expect we will. Our egos and our government seals don’t get in the way of getting something done. That’s been unique in my experience as an elected official. It doesn’t work that way in most instances, but for some reason—probably because all of us love the Santa Monica Mountains—we don’t consider failure an option. When we get together to do something, we make it happen. We don't care who gets the credit for it.

As a result, in the last 20 years, nearly 20,000 acres of land have been acquired by public agencies that are now part of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. It’s an incredible achievement. But there’s a lot of work left for the new generation of political leaders. Once you’ve seen the Santa Monica Mountains, they’re indelibly etched in your mind, nostrils, and ears. Every sense that a human body has is totally consumed by this incredible environmental resource. I’m not worried about its future. 

Let me focus on the future—what needs to be done. Water conservation and quality are obviously increasingly visible given the drought and climate change. The Board of Supervisors did not enact a stormwater parcel fee on property owners to pay for that. Will the Supervisors likely reconsider that, or is that not the way to go?

I supported it, and I support establishing a fee to help clean up the stormwater runoff in particular, but I think it’s politically an uphill battle right now. The manner in which we were going to impose the fee was very controversial.

The proposal that the board had before it was to have a property assessment fee based on your parcel. It was an assessment district that was going to be a vote-by-mail type of election. There was a lot of blowback on that. One of the reasons that this approach was considered is that it only takes 50-percent-plus-one of the property owners who vote to approve an assessment, whereas if you go to a conventional parcel tax election, it’s a two-thirds vote. There’s no way that such a measure would get two thirds of a vote of the electorate right now, and there probably isn’t much of a chance that it would get a majority of the property owners on a parcel assessment, either.

I think there’s going to have to be a different approach and different sources of revenue to do what needs to be done. The problem is that what needs to be done is almost limitless. The stormwater pollution that we have in this county, which starts well inland of the oceans, is the responsibility of cities, county property owners, and industry. Even if you were to attack every one of those sources, you can’t be 100 percent sure that you’re going to solve the pollution problems, because these aren’t necessarily the only sources of pollution.

We just did a study of pollution in Topanga Creek and found that the two greatest contributing factors where the creek enters the Pacific Ocean were seagull droppings and dog poop. We can do something about the dog poop, but I don’t know what we do about the seagulls. What puts that beach on the Heal the Bay list of failing beaches may be totally uncontrollable, even if we spent $10 million to address all the problems upstream. It’s just been a hard sell to the taxpaying public, and I think we need to do a much better job of educating the public about what the stakes are.

In light of the many contributions you have made to the preservation of the Santa Monica Mountains, could you comment on your contributions to transportation and on the efforts you’ve made to build a rail system that was almost non-existent when you entered public life thirty years ago? Share what’s on the Metro agenda for the balance of this year and what you hope your legacy and contributions to regional mobility will be going forward.

I don’t discuss my legacy, because that’s somebody else’s job, if there is a legacy. What’s on the agenda now is that we’re waiting with baited breath for the federal Department of Transportation to approve the full-funding grant agreement for the extension of the Purple Line—the subway from Western Avenue to La Cienega. This is the vehicle through which we receive the federal funds that are critical to the completion of this project. The Western to La Cienega phase is the first in getting the subway to the West LA VA. I’m optimistic that we will all live long enough to see that happen.  

We’re very optimistic. The FTA has sent the full-funding grant agreement to Congress for the 30-day review, which is a precursor to approving the FFGA, and I fully expect that we will have that agreement in the next 30 to 60 days.

Half the subway construction is going to be paid for by Measure R, which was approved by the voters in 2008, and the other half we are expecting the federal government to pay for. It will be up to the next generation of public officials to get the Phase II and III done, which are well teed up to get done, through Century City and West LA. That’s one—and a project that serves the heart of my district—but there are a lot of other projects.

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© 2014 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.