November 30, 1997 - From the November, 1997 issue

LA County’s Newest Planning Commissioner: A Pragmatic Enviro

Former Trust for Public Land's LA. office Director Esther Feldman is settling into her new position as LA. County Regional Planning Commissioner. In the following TPR interview, she shares her opinion of the Commissions record on environmental issues and sheds light on the status of the major Universal City and Newhall Ranch developments pending before the Commission. 


Esther Feldman

“If we are going to approve a development agreement for a project of this scope and size… then there has to be public benefit above and beyond what you would normally see with a smaller size or shorter-term project.”

Esther, you have recently resigned as the director of Trust for Public Land's L.A. Office, and you have become Zev Yaroslavsky's appointee to the County Planning Commission. Before we turn to your new role on the Planning Commission, touch on the accomplishments you're most proud of at Trust for Public Land and any continuing responsibilities you're taking with you that flow from that work.

I'm most proud of drafting and ensuring the passage of Prop. A in 1996, the Los Angeles County Safe Neighborhood Parks Act. Prop. A provides over $300 million for parks and natural lands, gang prevention programs, senior citizen facilities, and trails and rivers throughout the County. Clearly without a solid public funding source like Prop. A, you can’t achieve much of anything in terms of parks, open space, or quality of life improvements in communities throughout the County.

I’m equally proud of the Trust for Public Land’s work and continued leadership in making the Los Angeles River Greenway into a reality. I’m continuing to work with the Trust on developing new parks and recreation lands all along the river.

Let’s turn to your new role on the County Planning Commission. You certainly have some large cases coming before you. To the extent that you can share with our readers, what are your duties, responsibilities, and priorities?

We have some big cases before us now with a few more coming down the pike. These include the Universal Studios/MCA expansion and the 17-square mile Newhall Ranch development—the largest development this County has ever seen. In the future, we will be looking at the Los Angeles Airport expansion because we also serve as the Regional Airport Land-Use Commission. Pepperdine University will also be coming before us with a large expansion project proposal soon.

How have you taken on this assignment and what is your focus as one of five members of the commission?

My focus is making sure that the developments that go forward take into consideration community needs, land-use, the environment, transportation, parks, air and water quality and other components that are critical to building an urbanized County that also has a high quality of life.

How do you evaluate the County Planning Commission’s past and present performance on environmental issues?

There’s always room for improvement.

I hope the more than a decade’s worth of environmental experience I bring to the Commission will help make sure that the projects that go forward demonstrate our growing understanding of the need for a healthy environment in all our communities.

Are there specific environmental issues which you hope to address?

Recycling is a good example. Any development of considerable size ought to have state-of-the-art recycling programs. In the end, it’s win-win for everybody because it saves developers money while helping protect land-fill space—a cost everybody ends up having to bear.

Transportation planning is another issue where we’d often been the tail wagging the dog. And that’s evidenced by the problems at the MAT that we see today. If we’re paying attention from a planning perspective, we can make sure we’re setting aside enough land to allow future growth in transportation corridors—not only for cars, but for public transportation.

The County Regional Planning Department has been accused in the past from making some of its land-use decisions about unincorporated County areas without adequate dialogue with the planning departments of adjacent cities. Do you see this happening, and is the Universal City project an example of this practice?

The Universal Studio expansion is an example of how the planning process ought to work between the County and the City of L.A. All hearings have been held jointly with City and County planning staff, and materials have been circulated jointly. This is the first time that’s ever happened. It really is working very smoothly.

Related to that, the review process for the Universal City project seems to be moving a bit 

more slowly than was expected early on. Could you provide some insight on why that’s 

moved so slowly to date?

There is a tremendous amount of information circulating, and it is taking a long time to digest all of it. The commission recently asked for clarification on several issues and asked the MTA to put together topographical maps that show overlays of noise and traffic so we can clearly understand exactly what’s being proposed.

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Whenever you’re considering a project of this size, one of the big challenges is to break down into enough little pieces that you can understand it without losing sight of how those pieces hang together.

The development agreement for Newhall Ranch went before the Commission today as we’re doing this interview. Despite the limitations as to what you can address, could you give your readers some sense of how, as a Commissioner, you have approached this development of unprecedented size?

If we are going to approve a development agreement of a project of this scope and size—70,000 units over 25–30-year period (almost two generations!)—then there has to be public benefit above and beyond what you would normally see with a smaller size or shorter-term project. It’s incumbent upon the commission to make sure that all areas that affect the public—parks, libraries, schools, open space, trails, transportation, waste disposal, and water use—are adequately addressed. There are still several issues on the table about which there is a lot of concern.

As has been the case with Newhall Land & Farming’s developments in north County, developers are often held responsible for creating and maintaining open space in their projects. There are frequently concerns over the quality of their open space planning and their commitment to ongoing maintenance. Has this policy orientation—putting the burden of public space on private interest—been successful? Who is best suited to ensure that the public need for open space is met?

It is essential that adequate parks and open space be set aside by developers in conjunction with large-scale urban growth. This County, both the incorporated and unincorporated areas are among the most park-poor in the entire country, and this has a long-term negative impact on [communities’ public health], land values, quality of neighborhoods and the County’s attractiveness as a place to live and work. 

Parks are critical for quality of life, and they are critical to keeping our kids off the street and out of trouble. They become a very important gang prevention component, particularly in heavily urbanized areas.

The entities that are best suited to making sure that open space—parks and natural areas—are really put into place well are the regional public agencies with expertise in managing these kinds of lands and who know what it takes to manage these lands for protection of natural resources as well as providing safe public access.

Let’s tie back to the beginning here. You played a leading role with County Supervisor Yaroslavsky in passing the park bond issues both in ’92 and in ’96. How effective has the implementation been in acquiring functioning parks now that the money has become available?

Quite effective. The Prop. A Parks District has moved quickly in putting Prop. A 1996 in place, and has either issued bonds already or is about to do so very shortly.

Several projects around the County are already underway, so the County deserves a lot of credit for making Prop. A work well.

Let’s turn again to another topic you mentioned—the L.A. River and the acquisition of park and open space along that river. Could you elaborate on some of the specifics you’re working on to make this project a reality?

The Trust for Public Land and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority are working in partnership to acquire and develop key lands along the river. We also are working closely with each Board of Supervisors office. Our goal is to make sure that Prop. A funds that have been earmarked for the L.A. River are spent up and down the River to provide key access to the bikeway and to restore some natural lands adjacent to the river channel.

Our current focus is identifying key nodes along the River for land acquisition, restoration of natural areas, and providing public access onto the river trails. To accomplish this, we’re working in concert with the river trail that the city has been putting in. The Trail is a way for people in each section of the River’s 51 miles to have access and get a real sense for what the River will look like.

One of the projects I’m most excited about on the river is in the city of Maywood, a place that most people in the County probably don’t know exists. Maywood has the unusual distinction of being the most densely populated city in the nation—35,000 people in one square mile, yet they only have one little, tiny park.

We are converting a five-acre industrial area into a park and access point onto the river trail. 

Maywood will also be the start of the whole south bend section of the Los Angeles River Greenway. We’re very excited about the project. We’re setting a national precedent in taking brownfields and “recycling” them safely for parks purposes.

Finally, what’s happening in the County Planning Department that the public and our readers should be aware of?

The Planning Department has taken a lot of budget hits over the years and had not until recently gotten the funding to do any new planning or updates for the County. Now, for the first time in many years, they got an infusion of new staff. These eight or nine new planners will finally enable the Department to start dealing with some of the challenging and creative issues facing the County. 

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