Plan Offers Bonus of Speed to Developers : Paper work: L.A. plan is intended to bring credibility to state-mandated environmental impact statements, but homeowner activists say the changes don't go far enough.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city of Los Angeles will consider whether to reward developers with a bonus--a valuable speedup in their city paper work--if they give up the right to pick the consultants who conduct environmental reviews of their projects, allowing the city to name the reviewers instead.

The proposal is an attempt to bring new credibility to the state-required environmental review of major projects in the city, a top planning official said Monday as copies of the proposal were prepared for circulation.

The official, who asked not to be identified, predicted powerful developer interests will seek to block the proposed changes. Homeowner activists complained the proposal does not go far enough.

The proposal, prepared by Planning Department staff members, will be considered by the Planning Commission at an Aug. 9 hearing. If passed, it would be subject to approval by the City Council.

Homeowners and environmental activists have often criticized the city system that permits developers to pick and pay consultants who prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) on their projects.

The EIRs, required only of certain major developments, identify environmental problems and propose ways to lessen them, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

The process can produce costly delays for a developer, and the mitigations that might be required--ranging from paying for additional traffic signals to protecting sensitive wildlife areas--can be expensive.

With the large sums of money at stake, developers like to control the process, slow-growth activists contend.

The Planning Department's proposal contains two options for the developer.

Under one of these, developers would agree to have their projects reviewed by an independent consultant, hired by the city. Developers would pay a fee to cover the city's cost. In return, the developer would be guaranteed that city processing of the environmental review would take no more than a year.

It now takes up to 18 months for a project to be processed by the city of Los Angeles, while the cities of San Diego and San Francisco process projects in nine to 14 months, according to a Planning Department report.

Delays are costly to developers, who ultimately pass on these expenses to their customers, the report said. These pass-through costs are conservatively estimated at $5 million a year to tenants and buyers, the report said.

The second option would allow developers to select and pay the consultants who review their projects, just as they do now. But the developers who choose that option would receive no guarantees about when the city would complete the review of their privately generated EIR.

To get on the city's list, consultants would have to file a list of their clients with the city. The city would also "grade" consultants on their ability to meet city-imposed deadlines for completing EIRs.

Some critics said the new proposal falls far short of correcting a city-sanctioned system that, they say, has turned consultants into hired guns and hacks for their developer clients and has produced unreliable, biased environmental reviews.

"The Planning Department proposal is designed to deal with developer complaints that the environmental review process takes too long," said one homeowner group's representative, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

Homeowner activists want Mayor Tom Bradley to push for total city control of EIR preparation "to bring credibility to the process," the representative said.

Barbara Fine, a vice president of the Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns., an umbrella group for dozens of homeowner groups, said the Planning Department proposal "would not result in all that much change."

Fine said the best plan would be to mandate a system under which the city would select and hire the environmental consultants and regulate the contacts between consultant and developer.

"That would be the ideal system," she said. "But apparently the political will isn't there to produce such a recommendation."

The next-best system, she said, would be one in which only consultants hired by the city would be used to respond to the public's comments on an EIR, even if privately employed consultants prepared the report. Those comments and replies are important because they are published in the final EIRs and, if possible, are the basis for altering a project or proposing new mitigation measures.

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