The Los Angeles Planning Commission took steps last week to prevent citizen design review boards or their members from making side agreements with developers.
The move was prompted by efforts of the Westwood design board to ensure that its decisions would be carried out.
The five-member Planning Commission also ordered the revision of planning forms to warn builders that they should not enter any such agreements with the boards or individual members.
Planning Commissioner Ted Stein likened one such agreement involving the Westwood board to saying in effect: "We don't care what the Planning Commission does. We don't care what the Planning Department does. We don't care what the City Council does. You have to come back to us for approval. That's a no-no."
The vote is the latest salvo in a turf battle between planning officials and the Westwood board, the most aggressive of a handful of citizen groups in Los Angeles that have been formed under controversial 1988 City Council legislation to give community members a broader voice in neighborhood development issues.
But it is not the last word, according to Westwood board member Richard Agay, who vows to continue making agreements until he sees a written legal opinion that it is unlawful. Agay, an attorney, said: "I don't give a damn as to whether the city can enforce the agreement," because he can still take the developer to court on his own.
Agay said the intent of the side agreements is to prevent proposed developments that have already obtained design board approval from being substantially changed as they go through the city planning process.
If developers refuse to sign an agreement to offer assurances that they will build what they tell the board they are going to build, Agay said he will not approve the project. "All (the agreement) says is we seek an avoidance of fraud."
Admitting problems in the relatively new design review process, city planning officials say the problems can be resolved internally by having the Building and Safety Department recheck the plans to make sure they have not been altered.
Once a project moves past the design review board, it is subject to the political process and "back-room deals," Agay said. "There are lobbyists. . . . They are paid . . . because the get results."
Agay likened the current situation to a developer sitting in front of the board presenting a project with his fingers crossed behind his back. "The City Hall people are attempting . . . to (prevent) the board from having that level of satisfaction that what they are doing is a meaningful gesture."
There are two related issues--whether the design review board can make a developer sign what is called a "covenant and agreement" and whether a board member acting as an individual can do the same thing.
Agay's agreement, for example, called for the developer of a 17-unit condominium project to set aside additional open space in return for Agay's promise to withdraw an appeal that threatened to delay the project.
In taking its vote Thursday, the Planning Commission was acting on the advice of the city attorney that design review boards and their individual members do not have the authority to make agreements with developers on behalf of the city.
However, the city also cannot prohibit any individual--including members of design review boards--from entering into such agreements privately, the city attorney advised, adding that the city can distance itself from the agreements and advise developers to refuse to sign them.
The Westwood developer who reached the side agreement with Agay was the only public speaker at the commission meeting. He pleaded with the group not to hold his project hostage to their dispute.
"We as developers cannot afford to be caught in the middle and suffer further delays," said the developer, Darius Khakshouri.