At the August 8 meeting of the City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee, committee members heard a city report on current fees for appealing city land use decisions, and recommendations by the City Administrative Officer and Planning Department for revising those fees.
This may sound, at first mention, like a very “inside baseball” discussion of financial minutiae, but in many cases, the people who apply for land use permits are developers with large budgets, and the people who may appeal decisions on those projects are local residents…who do not have the same kinds of ready cash. Currently, to deal with that disparity, and to equalize things a bit in the area of land use appeals, the city has long made it a policy to maintain a two-tiered fee schedule for land use appeals – a higher fee, which allows the city to fully recoup its costs, for the original project applicants (who are usually developers), and a lower fee – under which the city subsidizes most of the costs incurred during the appeal process – for non-applicant appellants (who are often local neighbors).
Like other city fee schedules, land use application and appeal fees come up for review periodically. The last time this happened was in 2008-2009, when the current appeal fees were established. The city usually reviews these fees about every five years, so as with many other local review processes, they do seem to be a bit behind schedule with this one, and it’s not surprising that the fees are being reviewed again.
What did take many residents, and neighborhood activist groups, by surprise at last week’s PLUM meeting, however, was the CAO’s recommendation to eliminate city subsidies for non-applicant (e.g. neighbors’) appeals in land use cases and to increase their appeal fees (now an affordable $89) to the levels that the original project applicants pay (currently $13,538), to ensure full cost recovery for the city. The recommendation was based on the fact that the number of appeals to city land use decisions has skyrocketed in recent years, especially those submitted by non-applicants,” which means the cost of subsidizing those appeal fees has also risen significantly.
Although the City Planning Department’s recommendation, submitted in December 2016, had been to raise non-applicant appeal fees to $271 (about triple the previous rate), that proposal was still based on partial subsidies, and got much less attention at the August 8 PLUM meeting than the CAO’s full-recovery proposal.
During the August 8 discussion, one of the most enthusiastic voices was that of 12th District City Council Member and PLUM Committee member Mitch Englander, who said he was “delighted” that the topic of appeal fees has been raised, and that he has “wanted to have this conversation for so long.”
Englander said at the meeting that he has long felt it may be discriminatory, if not downright illegal, to maintain a two-tiered fee structure for different kinds of land use appellants. Englander said he would much rather see all appellants charged the same fee for appeal applications, at a rate that would allow full cost recovery for the city, which now spends as much as $4 million per year to subsidize land use appeals. Englander said he does want to make sure that less privileged parties, such as individual homeowners and neighborhood groups, do not lose their voice in the appeal process…but that he would rather that those who cannot afford the $13,000 fee would have access to a “hardship” process of some sort…or that, possibly, individual applicants would be able to recover the fees they pay if and when they win their appeal cases.
In the end, PLUM Committee Chair Jose Huizar asked, after Englander’s comments, that the issue be tabled for a week – and re-agendized for the committe’s meeting at 2:30 this afternoon (Tuesday, August 15) – so the city could craft and present some alternative ideas for appeal fee schedules.
During the week since the original PLUM hearing on this matter, local homeowner groups have been mobilizing against the proposed increases in appeal fees, claiming that an increase from $89 to the full cost recovery level of more than $13,000 will be an insurmountable hardship for most grass roots appellants…and also pointing out that the city has undertaken this discussion with little or no outreach to the people it will affect most. (At the August 8 meeting, Huizar asked a representative of the Planning Department if that group had done any community outreach on the proposed fee increases, and a representative replied that they had discussed the matter with two local business groups. No mention was made of Neighborhood Councils, neighborhood associations or other grass roots organizations that represent local residents.)
Yesterday, the CAO and Planning Department forwarded five new options for appeal fee structures to the city council, for discussion at today’s PLUM meeting. Those new options are:
1. Charge the lesser of $13,538 or 85 percent of the application fee for applicant (usually developer) appeals, and two percent of full cost recovery ($271) for non-applicant (often individual resident) appeals. This option was previously recommended in the December 2016 DCP report;
2. Charge 65 percent of full cost recovery ($8,800) for applicant appeals and 5 percent of full cost recovery ($677) for non-applicant appeals. These rates are similar to Los Angeles County’s $7,245 applicant appeal fee and $755 non-applicant appeal fee;
3. Charge 50 percent of full cost recovery ($6, 769) for both applicant and non-applicant appeals;
4. For environmental appeals, both applicant and non-applicant are charged at full cost recovery ($13,538). For non-environmental appeals, fees shall be assessed 2 percent of full cost recovery ($271) for residents within 500 feet of the project. For residents living outside the 500-foot radius, fees shall be assessed at 85 percent of the application fee or $13,538, whichever is lower. Applicant appeal fees shall be assessed at the lesser rate of 85 percent of the application fee or $13,538;
5. For environmental appeals, both applicant and non-applicant are charged at full cost recovery ($13,538). For non-environmental appeals, non-applicants living within 500 feet of the project shall qualify for one of the following subsidized fees: 1) $150 for residents participating in the Department of Water and Power’s (DWP) Lifeline Program; 2) $677 for residents participating in the DWP Low Income Discount Program; or, 3) 50 percent of full cost recovery ($6, 769). For applicant and non-applicants living outside of the 500-foot radius, the appeal fee shall be at 85 percent of full cost recovery ($11 ,507). To qualify for a Hardship Exemption fee, a resident shall provide a current utility bill for a property within 500-feet of the project site that demonstrates they are enrolled in the DWP Lifeline or DWP Low Income Discount Program.
The PLUM Committee meeting will begin at 2:30 p.m. today in City Hall room 350. Live video will also be available at https://www.lacity.org/your-government/audiovideo/council-meeting-video . This item is third on the agenda.