February 28, 1989 - From the February, 1989 issue

The Hillside Restrictions: A Case Study of the New Planning Commission

David Kramer describes in thrilling fashion the events of public meetings between Hillside and Bel Air residents versus the Planning Commission. 


“It was a bolt out of the blue."—Virginia Kruger

On September 16, 1988, Councilmen Michael Woo and Zev Yaroslavsky led reporters up narrow, winding Laurel Canyon streets to illustrate what they called the "nightmare in the Hollywood Hills." Woo declared, "Picture hook-and-ladder trucks trying to make their way to a heart attack victim or a house fire. Even worse, imagine these narrow, unpaved roads clogged with residents trying to flee a brushfire or a mudslide. I think you'll agree with me that would be a nightmare."

Now picture hundreds of Hillside and Bel Air residents storming an open public hearing and two Planning Commission meetings. Even worse, imagine three confusing alternative ordinances the Planning Commission had to consider in one of their most raucous meetings since three new Commissioners were appointed. Imagine one Commissioner adding a last-minute amendment which completely surprised Council deputies and the Fire Department. I think you'll agree that would be ... another day in the city's planning process.

In first attacking the problem introduced by Yaroslavsky and Woo's motions, the Planning Department had several issues to consider. On April 22, they were asked to extend the expiring moratorium for the Hillside area on substandard lots. They were also asked to close a loophole on what was the definition of an improved street. And finally, they were instructed to focus on the issue of fire safety, which had been brought on by a construction boom on non-existing streets. What resulted was "a hodgepodge, an omnibus bill which included a provision that affected remodeling in the future as well as new houses," said James Nelson, Chairman of the Laurel Canyon Coalition of Homeowners and a supporter of Councilman Woo's original motion.

Coupled with the problem of this "omnibus bill," was the introduction of a new system in the public process whereby an open meeting with the Planning Department's hearing examiner provided an interim step between the staff report and the Planning Commission. "What came out of the first hearing is that everyone agreed to focus on fire safety and access," notes Commission President William Luddy." Councilman Yaroslavsky even said that the Planning staff had gone too far and not done what he wanted." What also came out of the first meeting was a second bill written by the hearing examiner.

By December 1, the Planning Commission meeting was packed with advocates of the measure and opponents of the remodeling restrictions. "I've never seen more people up in arms," said Luddy. Nelson adds, "It was extremely difficult for the Planning Commission to keep things in control given the atmosphere." A third alternative emerged, crafted by new Commissioner William Christopher, which was also tabled because it addressed more issues than fire safety and access.

The crisis was finally resolved at the January 5 Planning Commission meeting. The Commission eventually approved temporary restrictions on construction in the Santa Monica Mountains which makes it more difficult to build homes on narrow, or non-existent roads. One interesting twist, however, occurred at the very end of the meeting: Commissioner Ted Stein was able to join with William Luddy and swing-vote Carmen Estrada to add an amendment allowing a limited number of permits to be exempted from going to the Zoning Administrator, if the projects already meet the criteria previously agreed upon. ''The exemptions came as a total surprise to the Fire Department, the Plan­ning Department and the Council offices," explains Charlie Justis, a Fire Department inspector.

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“It was a bolt out of the blue," said Virginia Kruger, Yaroslavsky's planning deputy. "The Fire Department clearly said that if you are dealing with streets that are less than 20 feet, you have to look case by case even if the projects meet our criteria. This will just lead to a rush for building permits."

Stein, meanwhile, argued that if projects met such criteria as installing sprinklers and paving 20-foot wide stretches of road abutting the property, there was no use in extending a costly city review. The City Council, however, is expected to block the added exemptions.

The Hillside restrictions were thus one of the public's first looks at the actions of a newly revamped Planning Commission.

"Commissioner Suzette Neiman acted as the seasoned veteran, explaining the ways of the Planning Commission. She was the Parliamentarian. She was very good during the meeting and patient as well,'' noted James Nelson. Planning Deputy Ralph Crouch added, "Neiman is the conscience of the committee."

Neiman's ally on the Hillside restrictions, William Christopher, took a very active role in the process. "He had conversations with the Fire Department and the Bureau of Engineers, and asked the questions that planners and architects ask," said Kruger. "He is very hands-on and tries to structure compromise legislation. Most commissioners don't draft legislation-it's unusual."

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