May 30, 1990 - From the May, 1990 issue

Site Plan Review: Where Did It Come From and Where Will It End?

Site Plan Review Ordinance comes after the lawsuit by Friends of Westwood in 1986 and the resulting agreement by the California Court of Appeal in an 1987 opinion. Clare Bronowski, a land-use attorney with the law firm of Christensen, White, Miller, Fink & Jacobs, delves further into the upcoming Site Plan Review Ordinance being considered by Los Angeles City Council. Bronowski clarifies who proposed the ordinance and who will comply with it in future development. 

The Site Plan Review Ordinance being considered by the Los Angeles City Council creates a new, far-reaching discretionary permit process which will apply to hundreds of new development projects in Los Angeles annually. The genesis of this new twenty-three page ordinance was an ambitious lawsuit filed by Friends of Westwood (“FOW”) on February 19, 1986 to prevent the issuance of a building permit to the Center West project on Wilshire at Glendon.

From FOW’s argument that the provisions of the California Environment Quality Act (“CEQA”) applied to the issuance of a building permit for the 26-story office tower of over 350,000 square feet, came the site plan review legislation—legislation which will dramatically change the way most development projects are approved and reviewed in Los Angeles.

The California Court of Appeal agreed with FOW in a March 27, 1987 opinion which held that the issuance of the building permit for the Center West office tower was a “discretionary” project under CEQA. The California Supreme Court declined to review the case. Immediately following, the Mayor issued his June 27, 1987 directive to the Department of Building and Safety ordering CEQA review for larger building projects, including those over 40,000 square feet, creating more than 35 dwelling units, or generating 500 or more daily automobile trips. For almost three years the City has been operating under this Mayor’s directive whereby the Department of Building and Safety conducts environmental review and conditions its building permits as necessary and the Department of Planning processes environmental impact reports where necessary.

The Mayor’s directive has always been viewed as an interim measure. The site plan review legislation was proposed in order to provide for a formalized CEQA review process to be handled uniformly by the Planning Department.

However, while site plan review was originally conceived as a simple mechanism to administer CEQA review in conjunction with the issuance of building permits and to implement the Friends of Westwood decision, the ordinance quickly grew to become an entirely new City process going substantially beyond the requirements of the Friends of Westwood case or state CEQA law.

Around City Hall it is still widely stated that the 23-page Site Plan Review Ordinance was written by the City Attorney’s office to comply with the Friends of Westwood case. In fact, the Friends of Westwood case merely states that building permits for major projects in the City of Los Angeles are not entirely ministerial—that in a large-scale project there are invariably minor approvals, including, for example, the placement of driveways, approval of internal traffic circulation, street widening and dedication requirements, and zoning interpretations, where city employees exercise discretion during the plan check process.

The case also states that, in general, the Los Angeles Municipal Code requires building permits to be issued when certain standards arc met and, therefore, those building permits are ministerial.

Rather than requiring only that CEQA be applied as appropriate to major building permits in Los Angeles, The Site Plan Review Ordinance establishes a new discretionary permit for projects which fall under its provisions. The areas of permissible discretionary review for “by-right” building projects have, thus, been substantially expanded.

The Site Plan Review Ordinance will require a site plan review or conditional use permit prior to the issuance of any grading permit, foundation permit, building permit, or use of land permit for specified development projects. Site plan review is required for any project which results in an increase of 40,000 square feet or more of non-residential floor area, an increase of 35 or more dwelling units, or an increase of 500 or more average daily vehicle trips.

Review is also required for any development project which results in an addition of 40,000 square feet or less of non-residential floor area to an existing development if the building footprint is expanded to be located closer to an abutting street, alley or residential zone, if new signs are added to the building, if the existing building does not already comply with the Transitional Height Ordinance, or if the existing parking is determined to be inadequate.

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Larger projects—those which add 100,000 square feet or more of non-residential floor area, 250,000 square feet or more of warehouse area, or 250 hotel or motel guest rooms—must receive a conditional use permit.

Site plan review will be conducted pursuant to guidelines to be established by the Director of Planning. The Director of Planning will designate a Hearing Examiner to review cases and will determine if a public hearing is necessary in each case. The site plan review determination of the Director of Planning is appealable to the City Planning Commission.

The Site Plan Review Ordinance adds another new concept to the implementation of CEQA in the City of Los Angeles—that environmental clearance previously granted to a project remains valid for only six years. The Site Plan Review Ordinance contains various exceptions for development projects which have already received a still-valid discretionary approval not more than six years prior to the date of the application for building permit.

Projects which are the subject of tentative tract maps approved within the last six years, or vesting tentative tract maps approved within the last six years, or vesting tentative tract maps approved within the last eight years, are also exempt. State CEQA law does not provide such a precise set of time limitations.

CEQA provides that additional environmental review is only required if there are subsequent changes in the project, there are substantial changes in the circumstances under which the project is undertaken, or there is new information of substantial importance to the project. The City’s new “expiration dates” for previously approved environmental clearances will result in more projects being subjected to additional environmental review than state law would require.

The City is about to embark on an ambitious new scheme whereby hundreds of additional projects will be reviewed and conditioned each year. The task is monumental and the effect on future development is as yet unknown. It may, in fact, be an appropriate time in the City’s growth to undertake this new scrutiny of development.

However, to continue to insist that the Site Plan Review Ordinance was necessitated by the courts is misleading. The California courts do not set City planning policy.

The courts did not direct the City to add a new discretionary approval procedure to its Municipal Code. The courts merely ruled that the City must comply with state CEQA law where, under the existing Municipal Code, the City in fact has the discretion to condition building permits.

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