In the City of Los Angeles we have seven Area Planning Commissions (known as “APCs”), each consisting of five volunteer members appointed by the Mayor and covering a distinct geographical part of the city. These APC commissioners need not and, in fact, do not possess any special training, knowledge or experience in land use matters, and certainly are not familiar with the body of land use and zoning laws applicable to many of their decisions. Pursuant to the city charter and zoning code, the APCs are empowered to decide many important cases. In many instances, the decision of the APC is final — meaning there is no further right of appeal to the City Council. The only remedy left is litigation and that, all too often, is too expensive for modest projects. The impact of a negative APC decision can be devastating to an applicant, as it can result in significant financial losses — sometimes millions of dollars. Yet, despite all this, the City of Los Angeles does not provide legal counsel to guide APCs during the hearing and in their deliberations on the merits of a case. Planning Department staff is present at the hearings, but no one from the City Attorney’s Office is present to make sure that the law is followed.
The results in many instances are predictable. Decisions have been rendered which are not supported by the evidence, which are contrary to the law, and which — in some circumstance — are “results oriented.” This is extremely unfair and prejudicial to people who purchase properties in reliance on what the law permits them to build, only to be told by an APC that their application is denied. I have firsthand knowledge of many such unfortunate experiences involving clients. In a recent case, one of the APCs ignored the advice of the Department of Building & Safety and of the Planning Department, where a restaurant was permitted to use the existing “grandfathered” number of parking spaces for this site. Statements made by some of the commissioners at this hearing demonstrated that they did not care what the law was or how the city has always applied it because they, the commissioners, did not like the result. So this APC ruled that the building permit must be revoked. JMBM filed a lawsuit and the court ruled in our client’s favor. Now our client is able to proceed against the city for damages caused by the illegal revocation of the building permit.
The reason that the City Attorney does not provide the APCs with legal support at the hearings is due to budgetary constraints; however, one has to wonder whether in the long run it may be less costly for the city to provide the attorneys.
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Ben Reznik is the founder and chair of the Government, Land Use, Environment and Energy Department at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP. Ben’s practice emphasizes real estate development entitlements, zoning and environmental issues. He appears regularly before planning commissions, city councils and other governmental boards and agencies, as well as the courts. Ben and his work have been featured in the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Business Journal, and he has been included in the Los Angeles Daily Journal as one of California’s “Top 100” lawyers. Ben leads a group of distinguished attorneys whose work has resulted in JMBM’s inclusion in the U.S. News & World Report / Best Lawyers® list of Best Law Firms (2011-2012) with a National First-Tier Ranking and a Metropolitan First-Tier Ranking (Los Angeles) in the area of Land Use and Zoning Law. Contact Ben at BMR@jmbm.com or 310.201.3572.