March 30, 1992 - From the March, 1992 issue

Does Warner Ridge Decision Mean a New Consistency Program?

As the City of Los Angeles prepares for next month’s arrival of its new Planning Director, the city’s ba­sic planning framework has rarely looked more uncertain. The reason: the recent Warner Ridge decision struck down the city’s “hierarchy” scheme of zoning — a concept un­derlying the city’s approach to com­plying with zoning consistency under the AB 283 program of the 1980’s. 

Amidst Warner Ridge’s rubble, the Planning Department now may be facing “Son of AB 283” — a potential fiscal and management nightmare, confronting the department at pre­cisely the time it is trying to put its own house in order.

Ken Bernstein, Editor of The Planningi Report, fills readers in on the impacts of the Warner Ridge decision.


“We’re not just going to do a massive rezoning,” says Melanie Fallon. “We’re going to do this right.”

The Warner Ridge Decision 

Warner Ridge was an unusually heated and significant planning case: what started as a local planning dis­pute (in which Woodland Hills resi­dents sought low-density residential development instead of the commer­cial development specified in the community plan) mushroomed into a political firestorm with major citywide implications. The furor perhaps reached its peak last fall when, in leaked depositions, Councilwoman Joy Picus frankly described how Council members seek to influence land-use decisions. 

But after all the sound and fury leading up to the decision, it is the decision itself that will leave the most lasting impact. The appeals court on New Year’s Eve struck down the city’s “hierarchy” scheme of zoning, under which Los Angeles permits zoning for a less intense use than that speci­fied in the community plan. 

The court sharply criticized the city’s actions on the Warner Ridge property as “zoning so inconsistent with the General Plan as to override the deference normally accorded such an ordinance.” The hierarchy theory was struck down by the court because it “would grant the City the authority to prohibit an entire category of land use which is specifically permitted and envisioned by the General Plan… The hierarchy theory, in es­sence, repeals the consistency re­quirement.” 

Problem Goes Beyond L.A.

As a result of the decision, properties zoned more restrictively than the general plan specifies may now be illegal. “It’s a landmark decision,” says Craig Lawson of C. W. Cook Co.. 

The impacts of the decision will be felt not only in Los Angeles, but also in other California cities with “hierarchical” zoning similar to that of Los Angeles. According to Acting Planning Director Melanie Fallon, the two cities in which she worked previ­ously — Inglewood and Santa Ana­ both have hierarchy schemes of zoning. 

In Los Angeles, planners are now attempting to get a handle on how many properties may be affected. Fallon estimates that tens of thousands of the city’s 800,000 parcels will be affected, though most of these properties may be developed and not ripe for redevelopment in the near future. Another early Planning Department estimate indicates that as many as half of these parcels may be in the San Fernando Valley. 

The Legal Aftermath 

Because property owners have been spending the early months of 1992 researching the decision’s im­plications and calculating their options, legal activity in Warner Ridge’s aftermath has been slow — for now. “There’s not the kind of broad gleeful­ness in the development community that you’d expect,” says Gail Gordon, land-use attorney with Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro. 

But when the law firm of Greenberg, Glusker, et. al. sent a bulletin to clients on Warner Ridge, “We got more calls than any other client bulletin has ever generated,” says attorney Elizabeth Watson. And according to Fred Gaines of the Sherman Oaks law firm Reznik and Reznik, “Consistency cases are starting to come in and people are now contemplating coming for­ward.” 

Reznik and Reznik has already filed suit on behalf of another Woodland Hills property owner, whose case is similar to Warner Ridge. In this case, the city denied the property owner the multi-family zoning specified in the community plan, retaining its residential estate zoning.

Although most parties have been proceeding as if the court struggle is over, a few acts could still be played out. The city is not appealing the decision, but has requested that the California Supreme Court “depublish” the case, which would mean that it could not be cited as precedent in future cases. But land use attor­neys stress that, even if Warner Ridge were depublished, someone else would merely bring a Warner Ridge­ style suit and the process would re­peat itself. 

Separately, the Woodland Hills Homeowners Association has filed an appeal to the California Supreme Court. The California Supreme Court has extended its time for granting a review until March 31st. 

“This is the most unjust land-use case since CEQA was enacted,” says attorney Tony Rossman, who filed the appeal for the homeowners. His appeal argues that the appeals court was correct to find the residential zoning inconsistent, but incorrect in specifying how to deal with the in­consistency. According to Rossman, the city should be able to change its community plan as well as its zoning. 

According to Rossman, the Cali­fornia League of Cities, concerned about the interference with legisla­tive prerogative and the effects of the decision on other cities, has filed a supporting letter on this issue. 

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The Warner Ridge Legacy 

Many Los Angeles planners, im­bued with respect for plans as the bible for development, see Warner Ridge as a vindication of the primacy of planning. Even Melanie Fallon recognizes some positive impacts amidst the headaches: “It will cer­tainly tighten up the process and help us address the Zucker audit’s concerns on the politics in planning.” 

Others lament the loss of the hier­archy scheme, which can be useful in some circumstances. Under a hierar­chy scheme, for example, the plan sets the framework for development and the zoning can catch up over time.

Bill Christopher, who serves as coordinator of PLAN/LA, the citywide coalition of residents’ asso­ciations, says that “I am concerned that the court has narrowed the time window for planning. The decision means that you write a plan that says ‘X,’ that means you need ‘X’ today. It doesn’t allow us to plan for ‘X’ 20 years from now.”

Aside from the new consistency requirements, Warner Ridge may leave a second legacy in the chastening effect it may have on elected officials. “Hal Bernson has mentioned Warner Ridge several times in the PLUM Committee,” says Craig Lawson. “He’s emphasizing that the Council can’t just make decisions; it’s got to look at the law, and look at the com­munity plan.” “Warner Ridge is like a big shadow coloring everybody’s thinking,” adds Julie Gertler of the Consensus Planning Group. 

What Lies Ahead 

The largest shadow, however, may be cast over the Planning Department, which must come up with a policy response to Warner Ridge — and quickly. After all, what happens if developers show up at the public counter and ask for their “rightful” zoning? 

Land-use attorneys say that the Planning Department has indicated that they should make applications for rezoning, which will be examined on a case by case basis. But, says Gaines, “Why should I have to make an application, pay $4,000 in fees, and possibly do an environmental re­view when it was the city that illegally zoned my property?”

The City Council, for now, seems content to let the Planning Depart­ment take the lead in grappling with the aftermath. Councilman Emani Bernardi has introduced a motion, seconded by Planning and Land Use Management Committee chair Hal Bernson, directing the Planning De­partment to recommend ways to fin­ish the job of making the zoning and plans consistent. In the past, however, Bernson has suggested that the city could sidestep the problem by insert­ing language on hierarchical zoning into all community plans. 

Meanwhile, homeowners groups are asking Assemblyman Richard Katz to introduce legislation that would clarify state law to permit hierarchical zoning explicitly. 

Fallon expects to present a pack­age of “six or seven” recommenda­tions to the Council during March, probably in executive session (which she believes is justified by the linger­ing legal battle). 

Fallon recognizes the need to un­dertake a new AB 283-style effort, but emphasizes that the department’s package will also contain other ele­ments. “We’re not just going to do a massive rezoning. We’re going to do this right.”

“Doing it right” apparently will include an expanded or modified community plan revision program, since it is impossible to rely on plans that are 20 years old. It will likely also include some coordination with the Citywide General Plan Framework (formerly called the Balanced Growth Element). 

Though the department will likely make its recommendations before the arrival of new Planning Director Con Howe, Howe’s early days will be shaped, or perhaps constrained, by the legacy of Warner Ridge.

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