June 30, 1989 - From the June, 1989 issue

What is Regional Planning? The Planning Report’s Discussion with Clinton Ternstrom, Chairman of the Regional Planning Commission

In our efforts to increase monthly coverage of County planning issues, The Planning Report met recently with Clinton Ternstrom, Chairman of the Los Angeles Regional Planning Commission. Ternstrom, a semi-retired architect with a practice in Brentwood, was appointed to the Commission two years ago by Supervisor Michael Antonovich.


"We have a limited amount of water. Our sewer system is a problem... And I don't know where the County is going to get funds for the new fire stations."—Clinton Ternstrom

How would you characterize the current planning efforts in Los Angeles County?

With regards to county planning, Los Angeles is unique. Originally, county areas were essentially agricultural and rural. That is why you see agricultural land on our master plan. Ventura County is one example of an entity that wants to stay that way. If someone wants to develop urban density in Ventura County, the County says, go join the city because we do not deal with such projects.

We are working with everything. We recognize that we cannot adopt an attitude of isolation. As a result, we are as active and involved as any metropolitan region. We have to confront all the issues which many of the other counties cannot and will not.

We are also different from most city planning agencies. You might say that the city of Los Angeles and other municipalities, Santa Monica for instance are engaged in redevelopment. There are no areas for expansion. They must in a sense reform to answer the challenges and the needs. But the County is the potential area to absorb some of the growth and, as a consequence, is still involved in development.

Where is the growth occurring?

Everyone knows about the expansion that's taking place in Antelope Valley. Palmdale and Lancaster are extending their city boundaries almost daily. But we have to be very careful. For instance, this month we turned down a commercial project in the tiny area of Quartz Hill, a unique little node in the desert And then consider Lake Los Angeles. People out there are willing to drive four hours a day so that they can buy a home for $70,000—80,000. We have to meet the challenges of growth there.

And the Santa Monica mountains are being invaded. They are being looked at as potential areas for housing. The Santa Clarity Valley and the city of Santa Clarita also present areas where growth arrived rapidly, too rapidly. As a result, 18 months ago we decided we could not approve any more plan amendments without a serious reflection on growth and the infrastructure.

Our challenge, once we recognize growth in the County, is to make it compatible with not only our infrastructure but with the environment. And I think we are answering that challenge right now. Another significant issue in the County is the protection of precious environmentally sensitive areas. For instance, on August 16th we will have a hearing on a project located near Quail Lake in a very beautiful area noted for wild flowers. There has been a tremendous response from such an isolated community.

There has been much discussion about regional management of growth. Is the County directing its growth to help establish more of a job/housing balance in the region?

I do not think that we have the initiative. We can preach, we do missionary work, but the private sector has to fulfill that role. In the case of the new Castaic plan, the basis for its approval was the location of jobs right in the appropriate spot at the intersection of Interstate 5 and Highway 126. But this was a good instance where a developer did the work of the County and fulfilled the role. We need more and more of that. The private sector has to bring jobs to housing areas.

The control on development lies with those who develop and the public. The Commission is in an overview capacity; we can't assume action but we can send messages through our decisions. We can deny, but where we want growth, that is the difficult thing. We would love to see more industry in Lancaster and Palmdale. But it is the private sector's role, and I'm depending on them.

Is the County's attention to growth a recent phenomenon?

When I was first on the Board, there was less attention, less involvement on the part of the Commissioners. Now there is intense involvement. It's not that the Commission is unique but that problems are beginning to surface. We study cases more carefully. I think there's a greater sensitivity, a greater responsibility to the issues and the projects.

This is reflected in some of the projects that have come up in the Santa Monica Mountains. We've turned down a huge hotel development at the top of Topanga Canyon which has caused a great controversy, and we seriously questioned the development of our residential community at the old Renaissance Pleasure Faire site in Agoura. The Commission did pass it by a 3-2 vote, although some modifications were made. But whether we win or lose on these issues, the point is that attention is being paid to very sensitive issues.

Many of these issues are coming into focus now, and of course, the primary reason the luxury hotel was rejected in the Malibu civic center was not so much environmental as it was infrastructure. There is no sewer to serve these huge developments in Malibu. Secondly, there has to be a judicious use of land which the developers wanted to transfer. The County luckily is unique in that we have these opportunities of providing for growth as well as controlling it

I think we're on the cutting edge of a lot of issues. We will have a careful review of the Santa Clarita amendments and many of the large projects in that area. Those will be coming out in August.

And we have another unique system in the County that is not replicated elsewhere: the developer monitoring system. It's a system which gages the amount of services we can offer in water, sewage, traffic, and fire. When a project comes in, we evaluate it. If it is approved, it is automatically registered in the development monitoring system. There is so much capacity for water—they have only taken this much and we have a surplus of so much left. We know exactly what's happening in terms of quantity. This gives us a very good control mechanism, almost undisputable. We will factor in these other issues.

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Another infrastructure crisis which we have a tremendous problem with is overcrowded schools. Areas have waged court battles to be able to finance their schools through exaction fees from developers. But our county counsel has ruled that this is a province of the state and not the county so as a result we have an unanswered problem. The state cannot respond and we can't, and some of the enlightened developers would help but they can't under the circumstances. It's a real problem because most of the populace has children.

What is your philosophy on the Commission?

My philosophy is rooted in the fact that this area has benefitted from tremendous growth and a progressive realistic attitude that is part of what makes Los Angeles such a wonderful area. Having lived here all my life, I’m devoted to seeing that we do have rational progress and that we preserve our beauty and environment.

I'm affected by the problems we confront and I want planning to take care of them. I want to focus on those forgotten elements: we need housing; we need increased density to provide for housing; we need to hook up our planning endeavors with transportation. I am concerned with preserving the physical as well as coastal beauty for our County.

There may come a time when it is very difficult for us to accommodate all of the economic growth that we would like to accept. But I'm optimistic to think that by rethinking and reusing and redeveloping, we're going to accommodate growth. Three of us on the Commission are quite outspoken, and we have deep concerns; I often wonder how much weight I carry because I'm frequently outvoted!

What are the current priorities of the Commission?

Greater attention to infrastructure, job/housing balance. We have a limited amount of water. Our sewer system is a problem. Look at the city of Los Angeles, they haven't gotten out of it yet. In growth areas from previous page growth areas, we have to take care of the schools and public facilities. The challenge is to the development community to come up with innovations to get the proper funding and taxes. Something has to be restructured to take care of the schools in the heavily impacted areas. And I don't know where the County is going to get funds for the new fire stations.

Let me give you an example of a case which demonstrates our concerns. We had a development at the intersection of the 405 Freeway and the new Century Freeway. This is a County island near Lennox. It is an area of redevelopment which has changed the character of the whole single-family neighborhood. A proposal came before us which was a joint venture by the County Development Commission and a private developer where they sought to establish a new commercial center.

They worked it out very carefully with all the neighbors in terms of routes of travel, and in fact, we had a neighborhood association supporting it. It was linked with the future transportation line, the light rail. They could meet the economic demands of the area. They wanted a development agreement which we don't often approve.

This is one of the few instances when we said yes because the County was going to benefit; we were going to be a minor partner; it was forward looking; it was taking advantage of an area that otherwise might have been developed piece by piece. This was an outstanding project which answered the concerns of the community and the County's infrastructure.

How does the Commission work with the Board of Supervisors?

The Board of Supervisors rarely overturns our decisions. They're the elected officials, they always make the final decisions, but they want us to apply our best knowledge, our best thinking to come up with a decision. When the Ahmanson Company was developing a center for Calabasas, we finally approved the project. But the developer wanted a development agreement.

The Commission believes that the development agreement is only justified when there is obvious public benefit above and beyond the normal exactions and contributions. We didn't feel they were making them. They were helping the critical intersections, but everyone else was asked to do the same thing. So we said no to the developer agreement.

They appealed to the Board of Supervisors which granted the developer agreement. Another example is the case of the hotel on the top of Topanga. We turned it down but allowed the development as a residential golf course community. When it went to the Supervisors, they decided to reduce the density even more. They went beyond what I felt I could do or what might be justified under the circumstances.

I think because of the hard work of the Commission, the Board is reluctant to turn our decisions around without good reason. But recognize that the Board has a greater responsibility than we do.

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