On January 18, 2013, I attended UCLA Extension’s annual Land Use Law and Planning Conference which covered a wide range of current land use and environmental issues. Held at the historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel, this event was attended by over 200 attorneys, planners, public officials, builders, developers, consultants, and other professionals. While the amount of information shared by the speakers was a bit overwhelming at times, I enjoyed the conference and found it very interesting. Summarized below are highlights for me:
Collaboration is Key
Unlike past conferences which typically opened with an update on CEQA legislation, this year’s event began with a panel discussion of a very unique project: the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan (CVBMP). The word “collaboration” quickly came to mind as I learned about this ambitious plan to transform 556 acres of underused industrial bayfront landscape into a thriving residential and world-class waterfront resort destination. Unanimously approved by the California Coastal Commission in August 2012, the CVBMP is the product a decade-long joint planning effort by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the Port of San Diego, the City of Chula Vista, Pacifica Companies, and the Environmental Health Coalition.
A plan or project of this scale at such a prime location would typically be opposed and/or subject to legal challenge. However, no lawsuits were filed in large part because the master planning process was a collaborative effort. In particular, the Port of San Diego and the City of Chula Vista entered into an agreement with the Bayfront Coalition (which consists of various environmental organizations) to ensure that the CVBMP and its components would be implemented in a manner that provides community benefits such as quality jobs, housing, and preservation and protection of natural resources and the environment. In addition, a 28-member citizens advisory committee was formed to guide and shape the plan. Over 100 public meetings were conducted with community members and other stakeholders.
As a park planner, I was especially pleased to learn that about 230 acres (over 40 percent) of the project’s total acreage is dedicated to parks, open space, and habitat restoration or preservation. A major element of the CVBMP is a 46-acre bayfront park referred to as a “Signature Park” which will be open to the public for a variety of recreational activities such as walking, running, cycling, bird watching, or simply relaxing on benches.
Planners as Experts and Informants
Attorney Connie Rice gave an engaging keynote address in which she provided her perspective on the issues facing urban communities. Over the years, Ms. Rice has filed numerous class action civil rights cases redressing unfair public policy in transportation and public housing. She explained how planners served as the experts and informants who helped her win cases by testifying and/or providing key information. In particular, she filed a landmark case on behalf of the Bus Riders Union that resulted in a mandate that more than $2 billion be spent to improve the bus system in Los Angeles. With the help of experts, she proved that the Los Angeles County Metropolian Transportation Authority (Metro) had used disproportionately more of its federal funds on the suburban-oriented rail service and its wealthier, whiter ridership, while at the same time it was spending disproportionately less on the bus system and its much larger, lower-income ridership, predominantly made up of people of color. This ultimately resulted in a Title VI consent decree that required Metro, among other things, to purchase additional buses to ease overcrowding and create new bus services to connect people of color and the poor to job and medical sites.
While I agree with Ms. Rice that planners can serve as experts and informants, I believe that planners can also be advocates ourselves and not leave that role to attorneys. The American Planning Association defines planning as “a dynamic profession that works to improve the welfare of people and their communities by creating more convenient, equitable, healthful, efficient, and attractive places for present and future generations.” Planning should be people-focused and equity should be a key goal of planning. In particular, Section A.1.f of the American Institute of Certified Planners’ Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states:
“We shall seek social justice by working to expand choice and opportunity for all persons, recognizing a special responsibility to plan for the needs of the disadvantaged and to promote racial and economic integration. We shall urge the alteration of policies, institutions, and decisions that oppose such needs.”
In my current position, I try to be an advocate for parks and am motivated by the desire to help improve and expand recreational options for communities in need because I have experienced firsthand the many benefits of parks. Growing up in Hong Kong, I spent many of my weekends at parks or recreation centers swimming, playing badminton, table tennis or tennis, and trying to improve my basketball or soccer skills. Now as an adult who continues to enjoy sports, I visit my local park or gym regularly and consider myself fortunate that I have easy access to these facilities. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the residents of underserved communities in Los Angeles that have fewer and/or less accessible parks and recreational facilities than other neighborhoods. In addition, parks in areas such as South Los Angeles are often lacking amenities and do not offer the same level of service as facilities in higher income neighborhoods such as West Los Angeles. I am currently working on Phase I of the County of Los Angeles Master Plan for Sustainable Parks and Recreation which focuses on meeting the recreational needs of six underserved unincorporated communities: East Los Angeles, East Rancho Dominguez, Lennox, Walnut Park, West Athens, and Willowbrook. These targeted communities have very low median household incomes, high levels of childhood obesity, insufficient parkland, limited parks funding (Quimby) associated with residential developments, and few healthy food options.
Parks and Lawsuits
Everyone loves parks, right? Well, the answer is generally yes, but that does not mean that parks are not controversial. Parks were the subject of two interesting cases discussed at the conference: Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach (2012); and Flanders Foundation v. City of Carmel-By-the-Sea (2012).
Banning Ranch Conservancy v. City of Newport Beach
A California appellate court affirmed a lower court decision denying Banning Ranch Conservancy’s petition to vacate the City of Newport Beach’s certification of an environmental impact report (EIR) for the development of a park. The group argued that the EIR wrongly defined the project to exclude pending residential and commercial development on an adjacent property. The group claimed the park and development are one interrelated project to which the city is giving improper “piecemeal” review under the CEQA. However, the court disagreed and pointed out that the EIR’s project definition properly excluded the neighboring development, which is not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the park. Rather, the two are separate projects with different proponents, serving different purposes. In addition, the EIR adequately analyzed the park’s cumulative traffic impacts, growth-inducing impacts, cumulative biological impacts, as well as impacts on the California gnatcatcher’s habitat. The court concluded that substantial evidence supported the EIR’s conclusions, and the city did not prejudicially abuse its discretion by approving it.
Flanders Foundation v. City of Carmel-By-the-Sea
The Sixth District Court of Appeal considered an EIR certified by the City of Carmel to support the sale of the historic Flanders Mansion and the surrounding park due to a lack of city resources to maintain the property. The court upheld the EIR against most of the arguments propounded by the project opponents, but found one fatal flaw: the EIR failed to respond to a comment suggesting that the city consider, as an alternative, selling the mansion with a smaller parcel of land. The EIR should have included a response to the comment because it raised a significant environmental issue and because it related to an unmitigated significant impact, i.e. the loss of parkland, and a smaller parcel might reduce that impact. The court upheld the EIR in all other respects, including the statement of overriding considerations adopted by the city when it approved the project. The court found that the key benefit of the project was the restoration of the property and upheld the override on this basis.
Overall, the Land Use Law and Planning Conference was an outstanding event. Not only did I find it educational, I was also inspired and challenged by the different speakers, especially Ms. Connie Rice. In addition, it was helpful to hear and learn about land use and planning issues that I am less familiar with or do not deal with on a regular basis. This was my third year in a row attending the conference. I learn something new every year and plan to go again next year.
Land Use Law and Planning Conference notebook cover by UCLA Extension
Chula Vista Bayfront from Wikipedia
Connie Rice from Wikipedia