April 29, 2015 - From the April/May, 2015 issue

General Plan Update 2035: A Forward-Looking Roadmap for Unincorporated LA County

Last month, the LA County Board of Supervisors voted to approve General Plan Update 2035, which lays out a new development pattern for the county’s unincorporated areas. Richard Bruckner, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, and Connie Chung, County Supervising Regional Planner, undertook the intensive process of balancing industrial uses, environmental conservation, and transit-oriented development. They spoke with TPR about the results.


Richard Bruckner

“Through this plan, we encourage development in areas with jobs, housing, and transit, and discourage it in areas that have either hazards or great ecological value. ” —Richard Bruckner

Unincorporated LA CountyRichard, as Director of the County of Los Angeles Department of Regional Planning, you must be pleased by the LA County Board of Supervisors’s unanimous vote of approval of the General Plan Update 2035. What’s the significance of the update?

Richard Bruckner: Yes, the Board of Supervisors’s vote on the General Plan for all of the unincorporated areas of the county is significant. We were thrilled that the Board took action. The plan had not been updated since 1980! It sets forth a new path for development in the County of Los Angeles.

Our update was based on sound and solid research. It included the mandatory elements for the General Plan with the exception of housing, which is on a slightly separate track. It also included an updated economic development element and the Climate Action Plan. The Supervisors voted on the plan’s EIR, as well.

Richard, before addressing the plan’s provisions, share why citizens in the county, unincorporated or otherwise, should care about the General Plan Update 2035. 

Richard Bruckner: The plan sets up a new development pattern based on our research. It changes the course of how the unincorporated portions of the county will grow or be preserved. 

It’s important to point out the context: The county is over 4,000 square miles. The unincorporated portion is about 2,600 square miles—enormous, more than twice the size of Rhode Island—and it contains a million people. If it were a city, it would be the second-largest in the county, next to Los Angeles.

Through this plan, we encourage development in areas with jobs, housing, and transit, and discourage it in areas that have either hazards or great ecological value. The plan aims to increase densities and focus the density around the existing transit systems in the County of Los Angeles, reinforcing that pattern of development.

We also carefully studied the ecologically sensitive areas.  The San Andreas fault moves through the very northern part of the county, and there are flood-prone areas, high-fire areas, and areas of astounding beauty and ecological value. 

The General Plan’s new policy framework includes sustainability. Elaborate, please.

Richard Bruckner: Connie did the heavy lifting. She’s my hero.

Connie Chung: One thing the new General Plan does that the previous one didn’t—even though there were a lot of great, related policies—is to bring sustainability front and center as an important theme for all of the unincorporated areas.

We also define what we mean by sustainability: looking at smart growth from a regional standpoint. It’s about focusing growth in areas where we have access to resources and transit, but it also means preserving important farmland and areas of ecological importance. 

When we say sustainability, we’re also talking about economic sustainability; about access to adequate services and infrastructure; about being stewards for the environment; and about creating a livable, equitable, and well-designed community. We’re taking a broad-based approach.

Because the county unincorporated areas are located all over LA County, we have a lot of diversity within our planning areas. We have coastal areas, rural areas, suburban areas, and urban areas. 

Through this new General Plan, we have established the “Planning Areas Framework.” It divides the county up into 11 planning areas, which sets the stage for future area planning efforts. Each of these 11 planning areas will be preparing an area plan—that’s the next major step in implementing the General Plan. 

Richard Bruckner: We wouldn’t be good planners if we didn’t talk about process. 

Connie and her team held about 100 meetings in a variety of communities throughout unincorporated LA County. They also worked with our folks in GIS to carefully map the hazard areas I described earlier—the flood- and fault-prone areas, the earthquake areas, and the high fire zones. We had a series of studies done on the ecologically important areas.

Then we looked at the underlying zoning. We examined over 135,000 parcels for consistency. Out of those, a little over 4,300 are proposed to be rezoned. There was very solid, technical research behind the outcome. 

We contracted with LAEDC, who helped us define areas that were very important to job protection. We found that over the last several decades, many of the industrial areas of the county were chipped away at by housing development and institutional uses. Through the housing booms, the housing market was out-pricing industrial land. We’ve been losing those job-creating areas and wanted to protect them. That’s important to the future economy of LA County.

We are making proposals to change the underlying zoning so that these areas retain their intense industrial uses, to keep those jobs here. 

In four years' time, what metrics will best reveal how the updated plan is influencing land use and development decisions?

Richard Bruckner: First, pure growth—and where that growth happened. We’d measure this by tracking our building permit data. We’d also check the frequency of the applications for zone changes and variances to see if market conditions align withthe long term vision of LA County articulated in the General Plan Update. We wouldn’t see erosion of our industrial areas and we wouldn’t see sprawl into areas that were inappropriate.

I’m very optimistic that the vision’s a solid one based on solid research, and that the re-zoning will bring about the desired outcome. 

Connie Chung: I’d add that the countywide General Plan sets the stage for more coordinated work between county departments. The General Plan update, although it was led by the Department of Regional Planning, was a partnership between other county departments, like the Department of Public Works, Public Health, Community Development Commission, Parks and Recreation, Libraries, and the Sheriff’s Department. You’re likely to see in the next couple years more coordinated efforts around infrastructure and transportation planning. 

Also, because our Community Climate Action Plan was developed to align with the state’s AB-32 goal, it looks to 2020 (although our commitment to addressing climate change is an ongoing effort). Since we will be tracking our implementation of the Climate Action Plan, another metric of success will be reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

How important were the zoning changes incorporated into this General Plan update—as well as the changes you chose not to make?

Richard Bruckner: The ones that were not made are really important, as you point out. We were very careful to respect existing single-family neighborhoods, which is a good deal of the territory in the unincorporated areas. Those were left intact. 

Of the 135,000 parcels, we drilled down to a little over 4,300 parcels. Many of those were cases where the zoning of the parcel was not in conformance with the General Plan, so it frustrated anyone who wished to do improvements on those parcels. If they were to come in with a permit, we’d say, “You’re not in alignment with the General Plan, so you can’t expand or make significant changes.” 

Primarily, the 4,300-plus zone changes were made to align the zoning with the General Plan. Many communities look at it upside-down and think the zoning is the problem, when the issue is the General Plan. We focused on the General Plan  as a policy document and took our lead from that.

There were a few areas where we made policy changes and were proactive in looking at zone changes, primarily in the industrial areas. Connie can elaborate.

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Connie Chung: That occurred in industrial areas where we were creating Employment Protection Districts, as well as Transit-Oriented Districts. 

But as the Director mentioned, a majority of the zone changes that we made were cleanup in nature, such as correcting non-conforming uses. We looked at case histories and the uses on the ground to correct things that didn’t make sense, like split-zoning in certain cases. 

Also, when we created the 1980 plan, our maps didn’t have the precision of the maps now in the General Plan Update. We didn’t have GIS technology back then, so we endearingly referred to them as “blob maps.” That caused a lot of confusion from an implementation standpoint. Property owners weren’t quite sure what they could do with their properties. There’s more clarity now. 

With the transition from “blob maps” to parcel-specific maps, we had to make adjustments. Some of the zoning cleanup is related to those adjustments.

Often, general plan updates must address the balance of land uses. In this update, how did industrial uses fare vis-a-vis housing or retail? 

Connie Chung: Because the scope of the General Plan looks at land uses, we worked to protect existing industrial uses and industrial land. As we mentioned, we did partner with LAEDC to go out into the field to identify existing uses as well as to reach out to stakeholders. 

We’ve had a couple of workshops related to the countywide General Plan industrial policy, and we worked closely with some of those business owners and industries located in our unincorporated communities. We narrowed it down to a couple of areas that we refer to as the Employment Protection Districts. They’re located, for instance, in unincorporated Rancho Dominguez, South San Jose Hills, some unincorporated communities along the Alameda Corridor, and Lopez Canyon.

The General Plan does this through a plan amendment finding for discouraging the conversion of these industrial areas into non-industrial uses. There are extra hoops you need to jump through in order to justify plan amendments.

Richard Bruckner: A follow-up task was to look at our zoning code to ensure it matches the strategy, and that the zones don’t inadvertently encourage commercial, retail, or housing. As you point out, David, those are the uses that command the greatest dollar-per-square-foot and will pace out industrial land. Long-term, we don’t think that’s a sustainable strategy for the county.

In the course of the County Board discussion of the General Plan update, Supervisor Hilda Solis emphasized the need for equitable development tools and concepts, and requested that the county Regional Planning Department report back to the Board. How will the department be following up?

Connie Chung: We are currently working on that report-back. Some examples of equitable development tools and concepts mentioned included value-capture, as well as affordable-housing and local-hiring strategies. Our approach is to reach out to different stakeholders, work closely with the Board offices and departments to identify all the tools out there, and then apply those tools to the unincorporated planning areas to find the best approaches. 

Richard Bruckner: We’re in the formative stages. The county has diversity in every sense of the word. There’s economic, racial and ethnic, as well as geographic diversity—deserts, beaches, and ocean. We’ve got to deal with all of those communities in their own way.

Share an example of how the Regional Planning Department balances the many land-use interests that must be accommodated in the General Plan 2035.

Richard Bruckner: Centennial may be a good example of that. Most of their land is in Kern County, but they’re the largest landowner in California. We had to work with them via our Antelope Valley Area Plan to balance a large piece of property with a variety of terrains. Some of it was high-value from an ecological perspective, so we needed to greatly reduce densities and not encourage sprawl. Some of it was important industrial land, which we wanted to retain as industrial development—there’s a property value play there. 

Then, as you start to devise new neighborhoods, you want to do so in a way that creates long-term sustainability: they’re near services, they’re walkable, and hopefully they have transit connections. In Centennial, we’re hoping that the plan is designed to promote connectivity that allows people to walk, to bike, and to have a shuttle system between all of their neighborhoods.

Describe, more specifically, the infrastructure and equity assumptions in the General Plan update process.

Richard Bruckner: Throughout the county, both in the unincorporated and incorporated areas, you hear about the marvel of the transit system and how it will change LA’s connectivity, bringing needed reinvestment in certain areas. But there’s also great concern that folks who have lived in those neighborhoods for years, with a lifestyle and economy that allows them to stay, could get priced out or pushed out.

In moving growth to TOD areas, working to keep the community base without gentrification will be the challenge in implementation.

A report from UCLA’s Institute of the Environment recently gave LA County as a whole a C+ on its environmental report card. Does the UCLA report reflect and align with the new, updated General Plan?

Richard Bruckner: I’ll start by mentioning a sea change going on in the thought process behind the design of projects in Public Works. I think I can speak for Gail Farber there. With her leadership and Board support, there’s a significant shift in how they’re looking at their functions, from flood control to road management.

In the General Plan, we’re setting a stake in the ground that we want to be much more sensitive to the environment, to jobs/housing balance, and to transit. I think a backward look would say, “We have a lot of work to do,” while a forward look would say, “These plans are progressive and there’s progressive leadership.”

Our next TPR issue will include an interview with Mark Pisano and Fred Silva about Senate Bill 826, Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts. Are EIFDs a tool that fits comfortably with the goals of the updated General Plan?

Richard Bruckner: It’s a great new tool in the toolbox. There are still some questions around how it will play out and what it will look like. 

I was very encouraged to learn that it’s scalable across regions and even jurisdictions. One of the perplexing issues we face is that some of the islands we plan for are surrounded by two or three other jurisdictions. It’s a challenge to bring them all together. Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts may be just the tool not only to bring people together politically, but also to bring the economics of the area together around infrastructure investment. 

Some of these areas sorely need infrastructure investment, particularly where the transit system is going. Sometimes our TOD strategy is unfortunately limited to half of the street, because the other half is in the City of LA or another bordering incorporated city. The future of some of these areas is partnering with the adjacent communities, and I appreciate that EIFDs could help do that.

Lastly, with the General Plan now approved, how will proposed projects—public or private—be aligned with the new General Plan update?

Richard Bruckner: First, I’m developing a great relationship with Public Works to measure their projects against the General Plan’s principles. Gail and I look forward to creating a way to do that.

As the private sector comes forward with projects, we want to encourage and streamline those that support these principles, and send a message about those that don’t.

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