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Just Saying No: A Planning Department Horror Story

Responding to longstanding complaints that Santa Monica's Planning Department is a "bureaucratic maze," the City Council last week unanimously supported a performance audit. In the first of a two-part commentary, Jim Lucas explains why he walked away from a proposed 500-square-foot addition to his home after investing 15 months and about $30,000 in cash.

By Jim Lucas

When we put down roots on Santa Monica’s eastern edge in the 1980s, our house made a lot of sense. Though modest, it was comfortable and surrounded by hedges, bougainvillea and bird of paradise. But as our kids have grown larger, our 1,000 square feet have begun to feel smaller.

So, in the spring of 2002, we started planning more room for our teenagers. We wanted to preserve the look and feel of this 1946 house: the existing roof would be untouched and the front yard essentially unchanged. A new one-story bedroom would occupy an unused portion of our back yard. No one could honestly say this 500-square-foot addition would alter the balance of things in Santa Monica.

We wanted to do this right. We hired a reputable architect who has successfully completed hundreds of sensitive and pleasant residential projects between Malibu and Beverly Hills. We budgeted for solar panels, redwood trees and landscaping that would eliminate 1950s concrete. We approached the City of Santa Monica's Planning Department with the intention of complying with the letter and spirit of its rules for sustainable and livable development.

What a mistake that was.

We now see, all too clearly, that if we want more space soon, we must buy an existing condo. In November we pulled the plug on this project.

And why would we endure the heartbreak of walking away from a chance to improve our modest but much-loved house? Especially after investing countless hours with architects and planners as well as about $30,000 in cash over more than 15 months?

Because of the City of Santa Monica's Planning Department.

The Heartbreak of Planning

To be blunt but clear, the City mired our progress with bureaucratic foot-dragging, shabby treatment and rules that vary between obscure and arbitrary. For the character of Santa Monica in the future, this has broad implications that I'll suggest in Part II. But first, I'd like to give you a taste of our sad story.

We spent more than 15 months actively seeking a building permit from the City of Santa Monica -- without receiving approval. The timeline for our project is an excruciating tale of delay. It is not marked by outrageous misconduct -- rather, our project died the death of a thousand cuts.

We spent five months -- from September 2002 until February 2003 -- just getting through Santa Monica’s Zoning Conformance Review. And that was only the first of three steps required by the City of Santa Monica.

In our first months of the process, the planners found small defects and notified us days or weeks later. Then, after we submitted corrections, the planners notified us of other small defects (“defects” which had been present from the start and could have been addressed early, but were only cited later).

We know our first plans weren’t perfect. But we also know that, in Los Angeles, planners routinely review similar residential proposals completely the first time and request all their corrections at once, thus avoiding what became, for us, months of unnecessary delay.

This bad process exacerbates the problems that arise when planners become distracted, as they seem to do in Santa Monica. For example, after we submitted a round of corrections in October 2002, a City staffer in November opined there “should be no problem” getting clearance to go before the Architectural Review Board in January 2003.

Unfortunately, with other priorities, the staff did not return or take our calls from late November until January 30, 2003. We were unable to resolve small details, and thus reached the ARB in April 2003.

In contrast, for more complex projects, the City of Los Angeles usually completes its entire review and permitting process in a month or two. Consider our architect’s three active projects on hillsides around Bel Air.

The City of Los Angeles granted our architect one permit in three months (it took so long because of a neighborhood dispute). Los Angeles needed two months to approve a very large addition with complex engineering work. And the City of Los Angeles is expected to grant the permit for our architect’s third active project -- a two-story addition on a geologically tricky hillside -- in less than six weeks.

Smart people chortle about the City of Los Angeles’ ineffective bureaucracy, but I say: Let them come to Santa Monica.

The Secrets of the Soils Reports

Admittedly, we experienced bright spots during this process. Our plans sailed smoothly through the ARB, which I am told is a tribute to our design. But, even then, a building permit remained elusive.

After the ARB review, we learned we needed a soils report. We were surprised by this: all the regulations had been carefully reviewed by my wife and our architect, who began his career in Santa Monica in the 1970s after graduating at the top of UC-Berkeley’s architecture school. Maybe we should have known about this requirement -- and maybe there’s a reason for the City staffer’s dismissive comment that “everyone knows” about this.

We then asked a simple question to the person at the Planning Department's counter: “What should be contained in the soils report?” The official said, “it's on the Web.” Beyond citing a web address, he briskly declined to offer additional guidance. Unfortunately, after several days of searching, we concluded that, if it was on the Web, we couldn’t find it. So, my wife returned to City Hall.

This time, she got lucky.

As she stood in line at the Planning Department, the person in front of her asked for information on soils reports. Perhaps that person used the document’s correct technical name.

What is clear is that the City employee, without hesitation, reached under the counter and produced a copy of a document that described, in useful detail, what was required in a soils report. So, my wife asked for the same thing. She was handed the document -- by the same guy who, just a week before, could barely manage to grunt about the Web site.

We don’t object to soils studies in earthquake zones (though we changed nothing in our plans as a result of the report -- the main effect of this detour was to delay us by another two months). Rather, we object to the way the City thwarted our efforts, early and late in the process, to discover its rules or to glimpse into its black box of decision making in hopes of avoiding yet another unnecessary delay.

Learn to Read Minds

Someone’s bound to say the real problem is not the bureaucrat who played dumb but our failure to get a soils report in the first place. Though it’s boring, it’s worth digging deeper.

We didn’t do the soils tests at first because we mistakenly believed (based on our careful reading of the City documents) that this would be required only for projects over 750 square feet (ours was about 500) and in hazard zones (and our house is not in such a zone, according to the State). But, as it turns out, the City doesn’t accept the State’s definitions -- and, worse, the City’s documents were about as clear as mud.

The City has tried to fix this problem, but even its solutions are shallow. You can see this when you read its “Guidelines for Geotechnical Reports” (it’s on the Web, dated July 2003 – a month after our problem spun out of control).

It states in Section 4.3.1: "…investigations performed on the Santa Monica fault have demonstrated that the Santa Monica fault has likely been active within the Holocene period (within 11,000 years before present) ... Although the State of California has not zoned the Santa Monica fault as an Earthquake Fault Zone in accordance with the Alquist-Priolo Earthquake Fault Zoning Act of 1972, the City is currently treating the fault as active."

The City appears to expect these words to cause readers to turn 25 pages, after the Appendices, to the map of the hazard zones. This is the map, as drawn by the City and not the State.

But the City seems to understand that such subtlety will be lost on many of us, so it has made a nice show of trying to help people through its regulatory maze. The City describes one such effort on its Planning web site: it says each project is assigned a Project Manager who “will oversee the permit processing of Standard and Complex projects and help applicants understand the City’s requirements and process as early as possible." This is a nice gesture, and our project did have a Project Manager.

If this “solution” worked, however, wouldn’t our Project Manager have clued us into the need for the soils report "as early as possible"? Instead, we learned of this rule only after it was too late to avoid another unnecessary delay.

Indeed, we could fill columns with similar stories. Each story would end with the same phrase: unnecessary delay.

(Eds. note: Jim Lucas has lived in Santa Monica since the mid-1980s. He and his wife bought their home on Santa Monica's eastern edge while expecting their first child, who now attends Santa Monica High.)

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