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While Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge, 4th District, attempts to shore up the city’s Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance, the city’s Planning Commission is pushing an additonal motion that some neighborhood groups fear will reduce their ability to provide input on such projects.
According to LaBonge’s motion, the ordinance — originally passed in 2004 — enables the development of “townhouse style homes” on urban infill lots with commercial or multi-family zoning.
However, over the years, the ordinance has led to several developments that are considered to be out of character with the surrounding residences. That revelation prompted LaBonge to call for an amendment.
“I want change,” he said. “I think there’s a concept — small lot subdivision — and that’s not something I think works for Los Angeles.”
LaBonge said it is vital to protect the city’s neighborhoods, which are among the city’s most desirable features. He said he doesn’t know why the city’s Planning Department has not found a way to “protect the beauty of L.A.” by recommending more restrictions. The councilman likened the situation to the issues caused by “mansionization.”
LaBonge said the department should hear from the people, and he hopes to begin a conversation about how the city should amend the ordinance.
“I want a robust discussion,” LaBonge added.
While amending the ordinance may be welcome news for some, the city council is also slated to consider an ordinance to allow developers who have received “a vesting tentative tract map approval or preliminary parcel map approval” the opportunity to obtain a building permit prior to the final map being recorded.
If approved, developers would be able to begin construction earlier, but they would be required to record the final map before the city would issue certificates of occupancy, according to the motion.
“We hold the developer’s feet to the fire by requiring that the map be recorded before a certificate of occupancy is recorded on those buildings. …That certificate of occupancy ensures that they will keep their commitments in the way that their original intention was,” said Lisa Weber, the planning department’s deputy director, during a planning commission hearing on the ordinance in December.
According to a report filed by the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, the new motion will alleviate a timing problem.
“Ordinarily, the Department of Building and Safety will not issue a building permit until the final subdivision map (in this case a tract map) has been recorded. Due to a combination of factors, it can often take up to two years for a final subdivision map to be recorded. Developers have complained that they cannot afford to wait that length of time merely to get building permits and only then commence construction. This delay also affects buyers who have to wait for new homes,” the report states.
Resident Bruce Kuyper, who lives on Bellagio Road in Council District 5, said that the proposal would violate the city charter, which states that five separate findings must be made before a variance is approved.
“The requested ordinance directly contradicts this,” he wrote in an e-mail to the council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, which approved both motions on July 1.
Kuyper said subdivided lots do not exist until a map is recorded, and that the city cannot grant variances for existing lots without meeting the five requirements spelled out in the city charter.
Dana Sayles, a land use consultant with three6ixty, supported the motion. In a letter to the committee, she said she welcomed the proposal to eliminate the need for “early-start” adjustments.
“As someone that works hand-in-hand with development and consultant communities, and who works closely with city staff from the planning and building departments, I have seen first-hand the unnecessary time and expense spent reconciling these project and early-start adjustments,” she wrote.
Locally, the motions have garnered mixed reactions. Don Hunt, the founder of the South Hollywood Residents Association, said the organization contacted LaBonge’s office in hopes that he would amend the ordinance.
“I suspect that our actions, along with those of other neighborhood associations, were instrumental in getting that motion put forth,” he said.
The organization was actually created in response to a small lot subdivision project in 2005. Hunt said neighbors found out at the last minute that a dense, three-story apartment building would be constructed among rows of single-story homes, with a couple two-story structures here and there. Despite their objections, the project was built.
Two years ago, a project that is similar in nature was proposed for North Las Palmas Avenue, Hunt said. Neighbors organized, and a lawsuit has been filed to stop the project, he said.
Hunt said the association is opposed to the removal of the early-start requirements, as they give community groups the opportunity to work with developers during the process. “We feel that the early start gives the neighborhood a better negotiating position to work with the developers and try to get better projects,” he said. “And without that, it takes away that opportunity.”
James Wolf, chair of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council Land Use Committee, said the committee supported both motions. He said the committee’s support of the early-start motion had a condition — developers must be aware of the risks associated with starting early. If the tract map approval process leads to project alterations, the developers must accept that, unless the provisions present an unreasonable hardship, Wolf said.
“So really it’s a risk shift to the developer,” he added.
Cary Brazeman, chair of the Mid-City West Community Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, said small lot subdivision projects have created a lot of challenges for neighborhoods, so he is pleased that the council is taking up the issue.
“Small lot subdivisions have the potential to be attractive additions to some neighborhoods,” he said. “The challenge is in their implementation to ensure these developments relate compatibly with other buildings in a neighborhood and with the street.”
Brazeman said the committee is scheduled to have a hearing about the issue at its July 15 meeting.
The council is expected to discuss both motions at its July 30 meeting.
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