July 5, 2000 - From the July, 2000 issue

New L.A. Area Planning Commissions Demystified: Studio City's Tony Lucente Offers an Orientation

On July 1, the new City Charter became law. One of the first effects was the creation of seven Area Planning Commissions (APCs) to replace the City's Board of Zoning Appeals. Local land use decisions will now be made by local representatives-but what exactly does this process entail? To help clear up some of the uncertainty surrounding the APCs, TPR sat down with Tony Lucente, President of the Studio City Residents Association and now a South Valley Area Planning Commissioner.


Anthony Lucente

Tony, you've just been appointed by Mayor Riordan and confirmed by the L.A. City Council to serve on one of the newly established Area Planning Commissions. Give our readers some insights into this new civic endeavor that you've taken on.

The Area Planning Commissions (APCs) are a very important part of the City Charter reform and are one means of bridging the gap between local communities and the city planning process. In today's structure there is one, five member City Planing Commission that covers all matters for the entire City of Los Angeles. The new City Charter establishes seven, smaller districts with one commission per district comprised of residents from the district, plus an expanded 8-member City Planning Commission. This will provide an opportunity for people from smaller areas of the City to get involved directly in matters of local concern, while still retaining a citywide commission to deal with issues that have citywide impact.

You've been active in Studio City for a long time. What were the failures of the previous planning system that led you to want to accept a position on one of these new Area Planning Commissions?

I've been a strong community advocate for many years and have testified at literally hundreds of hearings. One of my standard questions to Planning Commission members was, "Have you ever visited the site of the decision that is before you today and are you familiar with the neighborhood?" Many times the Commissioners had never visited the site and had minimal direct knowledge of the local community. This contributed to a general feeling that people who really didn't understand the issues of a particular community were making planning decisions. Area Planning Commissions will provide an opportunity for people much more familiar with the local community to make those decisions.

On February 23rd the City Council voted 13 to 0 to create the seven Area Planning Commissions and you are on the South Valley one. Orient our readers on how planning will now be done in the City. What's envisioned? What's changed regarding the planning process as of July 1st?

As envisioned in the new City Charter, projects will first go to Neighborhood Councils (once they are formed) comprised of representatives from all segments of the community and other community based organizations such as residents/homeowners groups, and of course, the local Council office. More savvy developers already know consulting local community organizations is the most effective means of ensuring that you're going to get the support you need right up front and avoid all of the appeals that can delay a project, drive up costs or at worse, prevent a project from coming to fruition.

Then, the applicant will continue to work with the City Planning Department and go through the normal process including a public hearing for discretionary matters.

The Area Planning Commissions will handle appeals of Planning Department's decisions on quasi-judicial matters of local concern. The newly-formed Citywide Planning Commission will handle legislative matters and quasi-judicial matters of citywide significance. The process was really streamlined because the development permit process mandates only one level of appeal on conditional uses and similar quasi-judicial matters. Before, many items could be appealed up to the City Council. Now, because you're bringing these matters to more localized area planning commissions (APCs), that's were the buck is going to stop.

To put flesh on these bones: What will differentiate what's a local and what's a citywide concern?

It will be determined by several factors including square footage. Projects that create or results in less that 50,000 gross square feet of non-residential floor area, projects that create or result in less than 50 dwelling units or guest room combinations and any application or zone change or tract appeal having less than 65,000 square feet of lot area (current mini mall standard), will go to the APCs. The Citywide Planning Commission will handle matters such as libraries, museums, schools, affordable housing, childcare facilities, homeless shelters, hospitals, motion picture and television studios.

In a Planning Report interview with Con Howe in November of 1999, Con said, "The biggest challenge in operating the [APC] system will be the balance between allowing for diverse outcomes in different areas of the City while having everyone work off the same consistent rules and regulations in the metropolis." Do you feel that this framework affords an opportunity to do that balancing act successfully?

Yes. The decisions that come before these Commissions are quasi-judicial and are decisions based on City municipal codes. However, no one ever said that the City code was not subject to interpretation. By having local community members be able to weigh in on these matters, we will see diverse and interesting outcomes –and hopefully, decisions that are best for that community.

You've been nominated and now confirmed by the Council to the South Valley Area Planning Commission. Who else has been appointed to this Area Commission and what are the terms of service? Lastly, what issues, do you believe, are going to dominate the South Valley Planning Commission agenda?

The South Valley APC is one of the largest (in terms of area) of the Planning Commissions. But it's also unique because we have a specific plan area for the length of Ventura Boulevard, which is the major corridor in the San Fernando. And we also have the Mulholland Scenic Corridor Specific Plan.

The South Valley APC is comprised of myself, Matt Epstein from Sherman Oaks who is a commercial realtor and has been active in the community, Jenel Huff from the California State Industry and Commerce agency, Darren Martinez, a local attorney, and Tsilah Burman who is also involved in commercial real estate. There are terms for each of the 5 Commissioners. The longest term is a 5-year term, and that's the one to which I've been appointed. And we do serve at the pleasure of Mayor Riordan.

Serving at the pleasure of the Mayor means that every time there is an election for Mayor, the appointees to the area planning commissions are subject to removal. Is this really local/neighborhood control?

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There has been a shift in power to the Mayor that was part of the Charter reform process and the intent of some of the reforms. And so he/she is going to be able to impact these matters in a great way.

As the President of the Studio City Residents Association, probably the most professional residents/homeowners group in the City, speak to what the role of Residents Associations is going to be under this new planning framework? Some have said that the associations actually might be weakened by the process that commenced on July 1st. Can you comment?

I don't think broadening the base and bringing more people into government weakens any particular segment of the base. Homeowners associations need to stand on their own. This process is going to separate the groups that have been legitimately representative of the community from those that haven't. Those that are legitimately representative will certainly continue to perform in that fashion.

For communities like Studio City that are already well organized, the changes that have been mandated under the new City Charter, really formalize a process that already exists. The Studio City Residents Association will be involved in the neighborhood councils and we already have a strong partnership with the local Chamber of Commerce. So we'll continue to have an opportunity to weigh in on planning matters at the very earliest part of the process.

What's great about the Charter reform is that it's going to assist communities that haven't been empowered and that are not yet organized. Those are the areas that are going to benefit most from having local Commissioners and Neighborhood Councils.

Have the Neighborhood Councils been formed yet in the Valley?

Not yet. The Department of Neighborhood Empowerment is conducting a series of workshops and hearings around the City-the next one is in Studio City on June 26th. And they're gathering input on the formation of these neighborhood councils. But we don't expect final recommendations and implementation for another year.

As the City of LA goes forward in implementing these reforms, what should our readers be focused on as benchmarks of success or areas of concern. What are the policy issues, in your mind, that are going to prove difficult to address under the new arrangements?

The biggest planning issue that was put forth during the Charter reform process was that this new process - Neighborhoods Councils, the Area Planning Commissions - would be an impediment to economic development not an impetus to streamline the process. Focus should be on whether this is the case or not. Frankly, I think if people follow the process outlined in the new Charter it will make for quicker and more effective decision making.

The effort to link Neighborhood Councils with APCs and to distinguish for jurisdicational purposes local vs. regional impacts for planning, is, some would say, a novel and untested idea for governing planning in a metropolitan area like Los Angeles. What are your chief concerns?

This particular structure for having a Citywide Planning Commission and also Area Planning Commissions has never been implemented in the United States to my knowledge. So we are the guinea pigs. And many of the Commissioners have not been exposed to all aspects of the planning process so that also is unique. But the City Planning Department has been very supportive and put forth several training opportunities for the new Commissioners.

The rules are not all cast in stone at this point. It's not to say that we're going to make them up along the way, but I certainly think there's going to be challenges to the process.

The good news is, if we do it right, we have an opportunity to be a model for citywide planning in the U.S.

What for you, after serving as an area planning commissioner for year, would constitute success?

I would first judge success by not having a full head of gray hair at that point. But, if project applicants and members of the community feel that they have had a fair opportunity to state their positions to people who are from the community, to have their day in court so to speak-we will have brought local government one step closer to the community. That would constitute success.

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