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Back to the Beach Again

By Frank J. Gruber

In February I was in despair when I wrote about how the City was caving in to selfish and hysterical neighbors of 415 Pacific Coast Highway in a useless effort to keep them from suing to block the Annenberg Foundation-funded plan to build a public beach club. (see column)

Not for the first time it looked like a noisy few, probably not even representative of their own neighbors, would have their way, and either prevent a good project from happening, or cause it to be down-sized so that the public benefit would be drastically reduced.

In January the Santa Monica City Council had, reflexively, like Pavlov's dogs, told staff to "listen" to the neighbors, and staff, caught between the Council, the neighbors's lawyers, and their fear that the Annenberg Foundation would bail if litigation delayed the project, were frozen like deer in the headlights.

But miracle of miracles, this time the people rose as one! Joel Brand and a few colleagues from the Santa Monica Conservancy organized, seemingly overnight, Friends of 415 PCH. Using the power of the Internet -- email and a website -- they mobilized a wave of support for the project, including a petition that was quickly signed by more than 500 people. (The number is now more than 700.)

When the Planning Commission approved the project in April, commissioners said they had never had such a response from the public. They remarked not only about the volume of the emails they had received, but also on the quality -- the individual expressions of hope that the commission would approve the beach club. (see story)

Even a prominent neighbor of 415 PCH, Royce Diener, has joined the Friends of 415 PCH's Honorary Committee.

Needless to say, the disgruntled neighbors appealed the Planning Commission and Landmarks Commission approvals of the project. The City Council will hear the appeals at a special meeting Thursday night.

Which brings me to the next cause for happiness: no doubt buoyed by the wave of public support, the City has shown a little backbone. The two staff reports (May 25, 2006 A and May 25, 2006 B), one for each appeal, forthrightly declare the importance of the project and the communal values that underlie it. They also demolish the sophistries of the appeals.

It's naïve to think that the staff's analysis will dissuade anyone from suing to block the project, but the City has now created a good record for the trial.

Happy as I am to report all this, it's not all roses. The City is still imposing on itself -- and on the public that will use the facility -- various humiliating conditions that the City agreed to when it was negotiating, bending over backwards, with the neighbors.

For instance, if you want to have a "social event" at your public beach club, among other indignities:

-- You will have to close it down by ten on weeknights (including Friday nights) or by eleven Saturday or Sunday;

-- For drinks, you will be allowed to serve only beer and wine, and only inside (for goodness sake, it's a beach club!);

-- You will not be allowed to serve a sit-down meal to more than 100 guests or cook the meal on-site (there will be no kitchen, only a "food-staging area");

-- You will not be allowed to rent additional furniture;

-- You will not be allowed to have amplified music outdoors; and

-- You will have to provide staff to ensure your guests do not disrupt "adjoining residential properties and their residents."

As I said, humiliating. Are we the public hooligans? Or children? No similar conditions apply to the two nearby private beach clubs, and before the 1994 earthquake the City operated 415 PCH as a beach club with banquet facilities. There is no evidence that these operations have created problems for the neighbors that make these conditions necessary.

I haven't mentioned the worst condition. It's a catchall; condition number 44: "The operation [of the whole facility] shall at all times be conducted in a manner not detrimental to surrounding properties or residents by reason of lights, noise, activities, parking or other actions."

What's this overreaching gibberish supposed to mean? Legally, this clause should be void for vagueness, but in the meantime who is to decide what is "detrimental" to the nearby residents?

City staff agreed to these conditions when they were terrified of the big, bad lawyers the neighbors had hired. Quite a number of them were designed to make sure the project complied with Prop. S, which prohibits "food service facilities" over a certain size. Now staff, in the new staff reports, presumably with input from the City Attorney's office, has disproved the arguments that Prop. S would apply to the club.

But we are stuck with the conditions.

It's probably too late for the Council to tell the staff to go back and rewrite these conditions, but the Council can make it clear that the City will have the opportunity in the future to revisit these conditions based on the experience of actual operations, and that staff should design the facilities so that they can be modified if necessary -- such as by combining meeting rooms to create a bigger social facility.

Meanwhile, staff has proposed two ordinances that need much more thought before the Council should approve them.

One ordinance would give "any interested person" the right to bring a civil action to compel compliance with (i.e., get an injunction to enforce) any condition of a land use permit. According to staff, this ordinance would merely codify existing case law, but staff is proposing it to assuage the anxieties of the neighbors who worry that without contractual rights to what the City has agreed to, they would not be able to enforce the "rights" they have negotiated.

But the new ordinance won't placate the neighbors. Their complaint is that the City, as the landowner in this case, can change the conditions -- as I hope they do. So the ordinance will probably not dissuade them from suing (could anything?). Meanwhile, coupled with the generalities of Condition 44, the new ordinance would give the neighbors a club to take to court.

The second ordinance is a well-meaning one to provide that when a charitable organization like the Annenberg Foundation is funding a civic improvement, the project will be "given priority" in permit processing and review. This is a good idea, but the ordinance is vague (vagueness being in vogue) about what priority would mean. The Council should take the time to put some teeth in this.

It's great that people who don't usually involve themselves in planning disputes have made themselves heard in support of 415 PCH. It's probably too much to hope that in the future, when other neighbors with their own parochial concerns try to block other good change in the city, whether it's more apartments or more classrooms, they might reflect on whether the greater good might be served by being less selfish.

And it might be too much to hope that the City Council and staff will in the future show more backbone when a few residents complain or threaten them.

But I hope so.

Friends of 415 PCH will be hosting a "beach party" at 5:30, immediately prior to the City Council's meeting Thursday, on the lawn in front of Santa Monica City Hall. For details, see the Friends of 415 PHC site.

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