The Beverly Hills City Council passed an ordinance at its Sept. 14 meeting that removes the Planning Commission from part of the process in reviewing large scale developments. The change, voted on three to two, makes the City Council the “planning agency” that reviews development agreements between the city and a project for conformance with the city’s general plan. The change follows the occasionally contentious approval process of the historic One Beverly Hills luxury hotel and condominium development in the spring.
As the city’s land use agency, the Commission makes recommendations to the City Council about whether or not to grant requested entitlements for developments. This involves determining whether the project conforms to the city’s general plan. In addition to reviewing all the jargon-rich documents that go into a new project–environmental impact reports, general plan amendments, overlay specific plans–prior to the change, the Commission would also examine development agreements.
A development agreement functions as a contract between the city and the developer that the city will not change pertinent regulations during the term of the agreement and will grant certain entitlements that would otherwise conflict with the city’s codes (excessive height, for instance). In return, the city can exact certain public benefits from the developer.
Previously, the development agreement was negotiated prior to appearing before the Planning Commission by an ad hoc committee consisting of two City Council members appointed by the mayor and relevant staff and consultants. After months of bargaining, the agreement would go before the Planning Commission.
“What we’ve experienced over the years with review of development agreements is that, at times, having the Planning Commission review development agreements can create an awkward process,” Director of Community Development Ryan Gohlich said. “The most relevant reasons for some of these issues are that development agreements typically take the form of a fiscal policy document because they include public benefits, and the Planning Commission is typically not involved in any fiscal policy setting.”
In an interview with the Courier, Planning Commissioner Peter Ostroff said a more reasoned solution to the awkwardness was simple: “The cure for that is to give us a little information and some time.”
Ostroff worried that the removal of the Planning Commission from the process would give future development agreement approvals the impression of a rubber stamp. He pointed out that the commission only had three days to review the development agreement for One Beverly Hills.
“Who the hell is going to have the time or energy to look at something like that?” he asked.
At the City Council meeting, Councilmember Julian Gold, M.D. argued that, given the Council’s role in negotiating the development agreement, it made sense to assign the Council to review it.
“We cannot put the Council in a position where we’ve spent maybe months negotiating a deal and then have it up for an opinion from the Planning Commission, which does not have the authority to either negotiate or ratify the deal,” he said. “I think that it makes much more sense for the Council to take responsibility for the development agreement–for the land use, and at the same time, for the general plan consistency. It’s our decision that rests with us.”
Along with Gold, Councilmember Lester Friedman also expressed frustration with what he viewed as opining by the Planning Commission on the quality of agreements, saying “the planning commission shouldn’t critique whether or not the deal is fiscally good or bad, but that is exactly what the Planning Commission has done in the past.”
Ostroff acknowledged that the Commission’s role does not include judging the merits of development agreements, only their conformance with the general plan. And while he believed he had not opined on the One Beverly Hills agreement, he said if he had, “so what?”
“They’re free to [disagree with the Planning Commission],” he said, “that’s what’s so silly about this.”
In public comments, one resident said that the current process–negotiating the agreement prior to public hearings on the project’s merits–constituted “de facto approval before the Planning Commission holds its public hearings.”
Gohlich said negotiations do not begin after public hearings, but sometime during the process. “The reason for that is in order to provide some level of known quantities for both the City Council and to the developer going through the process, so that if there’s a complete mismatch of what expectations are for deal points, we know that earlier on and don’t get all the way to the very end to find out that there’s no chance of a deal happening,” he explained.
Planning Commissioner Myra Demeter submitted a written comment to the City Council, stating, “The Planning Commission serves as an independent authority providing oversight, ensuring there is a layer of review for consistency with the general plan. Independent oversight is essential if Beverly Hills is to function in a transparent and open way.”