Fighting L.A. City Hall could get a lot more expensive

In Los Angeles, you can fight City Hall — for a price.

Neighborhood activists, tenant advocates and others alarmed by city decisions about proposed developments can lodge appeals with the Planning Department for an $89 fee.

Now city leaders are weighing whether to increase that price: City planners initially suggested tripling the fee to $271.

Budget officials recommended hiking it to $13,538 — an amount they say would completely recover city costs. Then city staffers offered up a range of options in between.

Financial analysts say higher fees would help the Planning Department cover the true cost of processing those appeals, freeing up money for other needed services. Beyond City Hall, some development advocates argue a hike is needed to discourage frivolous appeals.

But the idea spurred an outcry from neighborhood activists, who argued a higher fee would silence ordinary Angelenos fighting improper decisions.

The fee increase is “an attempt to prevent residents who are low income, those who can’t afford to spend $13,000, or $6,000 or even $600 on an appeal from being heard by their democratically elected government,” said Damien Goodmon, an activist who has battled the city over South L.A. projects that include a 30-story complex known as Cumulus.

The furor over the fees reflects a persistent tension for a massive city still under financial pressure: When should people have to pay their way for city services — and when should the city foot the bill?

L.A. has been reexamining many fees: City lawmakers have urged the Planning Department to charge enough to recoup its costs and avoid dipping deeper into the city general fund, which covers police patrols and other city services.

Real estate developers, business owners and others seeking permits or special approvals from the Planning Department can face fees totaling tens of thousands of dollars.

Last year, an outside firm calculated that the Planning Department had recovered nearly $22.2 million in revenue for almost $29.9 million in services related to reviewing projects. That $7.7-million difference had to be covered by the general fund, the report found.

City officials banked on recovering such costs when they crafted the budget this year and included more staffers to update community plans that spell out where new housing and businesses are allowed.

Planning officials are now seeking to hike dozens of fees for requests from developers and other applicants, as well as for filing an appeal. Many other fees will be reduced because the department can now perform those services more efficiently.

“We just want to make sure from a budgetary perspective that we’re whole,” said Planning Department chief management analyst Jason Killeen. If the department has to absorb such costs, he said, it won’t be able to update community plans as quickly as city lawmakers want.

Fees were last hiked eight years ago. City officials say that since then, costs for city planners and clerks have surged more than 70%.

Earlier this month, a City Council committee backed many of the proposed hikes, but held off on deciding whether to boost the appeal fee for someone other than the project applicant.

Charging $271 would cover only 2% of the city costs tied to such challenges, according to the city. In the last budget year, the city had $3.8 million in unrecovered costs for appeals that came out of the general fund, Killeen said. And between 2013 and 2017, the number of appeals nearly doubled, from 155 to 296.

Budget officials said that to recover all of their costs, the city should charge more than $13,500. City Administrative Officer Rich Llewellyn said that under city policies, “when there's an opportunity to seek cost recovery, you’re supposed to seek it.”

If the city does not do so, Llewellyn said, it has to make up for the “subsidy.” L.A. has already been subsidizing some fees tied to single-family homes or minor projects, as well as the appeal fee.

Attorney Daniel Wright challenged the city estimate for appeal costs as excessive and argued that trying to recover costs is “unlawful” if it blocks people from exercising their rights. In a letter to lawmakers, Wright pointed to an earlier case in which Kagel Canyon residents balked at putting a trucking school atop a landfill site.

If the fee had been more than $13,500, “it is doubtful that Kagel Canyon community members could have fought off the dumb idea,” Wright wrote.

Los Angeles already charges more than $13,000 to developers or their representatives who file appeals to challenge city decisions on their own proposed projects. Real estate developer Mott Smith argued that was unfair to charge developers so much more than their opponents.

“We have basically handed a gun to anyone who wants to shoot a project,” Smith said.

Lodging an appeal has slowed, reshaped or stopped proposed developments across L.A.

In South Los Angeles, the council rejected a residential facility for former inmates after a community organizer lodged an appeal arguing it would worsen neighborhood blight. In Venice, residents have successfully thwarted developers seeking coastal development permits for projects they argue are out-of-scale or clash with neighborhood character.

Earlier this month, a council committee backed an appeal against a Boyle Heights homeless housing project that would force it to get an environmental report, delaying the plan. And in June, the council granted part of an appeal against building an additional dwelling unit behind a Westwood apartment building, requiring it to prepare an environmental report amid concerns about traffic hazards in an alley.

Hiking the fee would discourage “frivolous or extortionary appeals” and would “especially help smaller developers who can't handle the risk of those new costs,” said Mark Vallianatos, director of the LAplus think tank and an advocate for rules that make development easier.

But at a recent hearing, many community activists said the blame for the growing number of appeals — and their cost — lies with the city for routinely allowing developers to alter existing rules to permit projects that are bigger or denser than would otherwise be allowed.

“If you want to really save money, don’t approve illegal projects,” George Abrahams, who fought the proposed Millennium Hollywood skyscrapers, told lawmakers.

Council members are weighing a range of options for boosting the fee, including charging half the total cost, providing discounted “hardship” fees, and charging more to people living outside the immediate area — a 500-foot-radius — where a project is proposed.

Councilman Mitch Englander said that he wants to protect communities, but has concerns about “professional appeal filers” who don't live nearby.

“We should make sure that local stakeholders have a voice that is protected — but if there is abuse in the system, we should know,” Englander said.

Tenant activist Sylvie Shain countered that many projects have effects beyond the immediate area, such as reducing the availability of rent-controlled apartments — a cause that spurred her to fight some planned developments farther from her home. If Englander is worried about outsiders abusing the system, Shain argued, “they’ll still do it for $13,000.”

“What it would limit is regular people,” she said.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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