November 30, 1989 - From the November, 1989 issue

Nate Holden's Moratorium: Aberration or Precedent?

The Planning Report's Editor, David Kramer, gives a rundown on a recently proposed emergency moratorium by Councilman Nate Holden. The call came after introducing an interim control ordinance (ICO) in response to homeowners' concern of development in their neighborhoods of Windsor Village and Pico Fairfax. Kramer uses Nate Holden's recent actions as a point of reflection on the necessity of ICOs in the future of the region.

If you were to drive down the 1500 block of Hi Point avenue in the Pico Fairfax area of Los Angeles, you would be stunned at the amount of demolition occurring in this single family neighborhood to construct new apartment buildings. As a reflection of some of L.A.’s poorly planned neighborhoods, single family houses sit adjacent to larger apartment complexes.

Responding to the anger and frustration of the residents, Councilman Nate Holden recently proposed an emergency moratorium to put a halt to the rapid development of two of his most endangered neighborhoods: Windsor Village and the Pico Fairfax area. What followed in City Hall is a great lesson in understanding the city’s current planning process and the political forces which are drawing and shaping it.

Councilman Holden first introduced an interim control ordinance to halt development in his district last June for many of the same reasons that most growth control ordinances are initiated: homeowner complaints. Many owners of single family homes were seeing their adjacent lots demolished, only to be replaced by multi-family apartments. This is common in numerous areas where the legal zoning is not consistent with homeowner expectations.

In order to react to these troubling situations in an expeditious manner, the City Council has a process to provide stop-gap measures for specific neighborhoods until a permanent plan can be adopted. This is exactly what Holden did, introducing an ordinance to halt the issuance of building and demolition permits—for his entire Council district!

But the emergency measures available to the Council—called Interim Control Ordinances(ICO)—take at least five months to approve. The reason for this delay is an overwhelmed Planning Department which must respond to Council requests for ICO's, moratoriums, specific plans, and discretionary review—all temporary measures to cure some immediate neighborhood problems.

The Planning Department subsequently spends significant time on short term solutions. One Council aide referred to it as the “fax machine mentality of planning, where you drop everything to take care of one specific problem and don't have time to do your regular business.”

By September, Holden realized that his district-wide ICO would not be adopted until Thanksgiving at the earliest. With new demolitions occurring each week and fueling a political backlash in the neighborhoods, he undertook an emergency ordinance to push a moratorium through in as few days as possible. He asked for and received a rules suspension from the Council to avoid going through the Council's Planning Committee.

He convinced Kenneth Topping, the Director of Planning, to agree to something he rarely does; Topping allowed the moratorium to go to the Planning Commission without sufficient notice, a public hearing, or a report from the hearing examiner. Topping probably acquiesced due to Holden's persistence and the emergency circumstances.

Without any land-use data, the Planning Commission voted 3-1 to approve the moratorium, and the Council unanimously passed the ordinance without discussion. At each step along the legislative path, people disapproved of Holden's strategy but were not willing to hold a neighborhood hostage to the rules which the Council uses to govern itself. What Holden proved is that since there is no stability inherent in the current planning process, it is quite possible to ignore the ever-changing rules without fear of retribution.

There is, however, some logic to the traditional planning process. As Jane Blumenfeld, the Mayor's Coordinator of Planning points out, “The reason that you have a process is that facts come out and you might actually learn something! There was no land use data in their file. It would be helpful to know what areas are already single family or multi-family. In this case, we may not have extended the boundaries of the Holden ICO to Pico Boulevard.”

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But at what price for the sanctity of the process? If the process for an emergency ordinance takes at least four months, what is an elected official to do?

The original votes indicated that few Council members were willing to vote against the moratorium to ensure that the system did not break down; it was acceptable to throw away their own rules to expedite an ordinance. This should hardly come as a surprise when the rules for land-use regulation are changing every day.

After the Council’s unanimous vote, Mayor Bradley vetoed the legislation, complaining that this blanket moratorium was illegal and a bad form of urban planning. What influence did his veto have on the planning process? Very little. After the Council overrode his veto, 10-3, it was clear that Councilmernbers were much more concerned with getting along with each other than with the Mayor.

In fact, most of the 10 members who voted to override the Mayor's veto criticized Holden and reprimanded Toppin. As one planning deputy said, “It was the Council's way of saying, ‘We're not going to let you get away with it this time, so we will let you get away with it this time.’”

Most Council members were not upset that the rules had been thrown out the window but that their own past requests to Topping had been rejected. This echoed a longstanding sentiment that not all councilmembers are equal in the eyes of various city departments. Councilperson aides often complain about preferential treatment accorded certain members by City Departments. In other words, if you let Holden do it, why can’t I do it as well.

Which is exactly what scenario could potentially occur as a result of this positive reinforcement of Holden’s efforts. Already Richard Alatorre and Robert Farrell have introduced large scale interim control ordinances in anticipation of their community plan revisions. These members feel that in order to protect their neighborhoods while plans arc rewritten, a growth control review is necessary. What conceivably could result is a blanket of ICO’s covering the city, overwhelming the Planning Department. and duplicating many current planning efforts.

Another possibility is that some pending legislation will make ICO’s seem old-fashioned by providing a protective layer of discretionary and environmental review which will permanently be built into the planning process. The ordinance, known as Site Plan Review, coupled with a new Demolition Ordinance to check not only demolitions but the plans for new construction, would render the concept of by-right development obsolete. This new legislation will create a greater level of review for larger residential development and most commercial development.

Not surprisingly, the Planning Department is trying to accommodate several forces in City Hall. While Councilman Hal Bernson is working to adopt legislation to put an end to ICO's, the Planning Department is currently working to process ICO’s in a quicker, more systematic way. Robert Sutton, in the Neighborhood Planning office, is attempting to process future ICO’s in three months. And many Council offices still feel that even with the site review and demolition ordinances, ICO’s are necessary. For instance, the site plan review covers neither residential development under 35 units nor multi­family development standards. In each neighborhood, an ICO can address specific problems that site plan review does not.

The result is that the Planning Department is working in several directions. While the Code Studies section works to make ICO’s obsolete, Neighborhood Planning strives to make them more efficient. And with all of this attention paid to short term planning, the Department continues to lack the resources to plan for the future. After all, everybody is much too busy responding to faxes.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.