The More Homeowners File Suit . . .

<i> William Fulton is editor and publisher of California Planning & Development Report and author of "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles."</i>

The city of Los Angeles spent two years and several million dollars on drafting its General Plan Framework--the blueprint for the future physical development of the city. But that hasn’t stopped a Superior Court judge from setting it aside--at least for now--and demanding more public review of the traffic portions of the plan.

But in the end, will additional public review--or, indeed, the entire legal assault by homeowner groups--make much difference to the plan? That’s hard to say.

The legalistic nature of planning documents often makes them vulnerable to litigation. And the state’s planning framework encourages small groups of people to sue; all they need is a lawyer willing to take on the task. But the intent of the lawsuit is rarely to make the plan better. Usually it’s designed to slow things down and / or give the plaintiffs more leverage over the political process. And so the end result is rarely a better plan or even a better town--but, rather, an endless game of political chess that lengthens the planning process and makes consensus harder to reach.

Like most cities revising their plans, Los Angeles undertook the General Plan Framework because of changing circumstances and legal pressure, in this case, pressure from federal agencies to deal with sewage, storm water runoff and other environmental issues. Because of the riots and recession of the early 1990s, the plan’s intent changed, and for a while it suffered from a lack of purpose. The resulting document was a pretty typical plan--it calls for a 25% population increase by the year 2010--backed up by what city officials hope will be better monitoring and evaluation of the city’s growth.


The Federation of Hillside and Canyon Assns. sued, claiming, among other things, that the costly traffic mitigation portion of the plan had not received enough public review. No doubt there were legal defects in the process; state planning law is so complicated it would be difficult for a plan not to violate it. But, typically, the lawsuit also served to promote the political agenda of those who filed it.

The Hillside Federation represents a long-standing group of active homeowner associations on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley. Traditionally the federation has sought to slow the city’s growth. In the case of the General Plan Framework, the federation lost--or at least didn’t succeed in limiting the city’s future growth as much as it had hoped to. So the federation sued.

This kind of lawsuit should not surprise anybody. Under state policy, the laws governing general plans--and environmental impact reports, for that matter--are not enforced by the state. Instead they are supposed to be enforced by a practice euphemistically known as citizen enforcement. That is, when people don’t think the law has been followed, they are supposed to sue.

The problem with this practice is that it encourages grass-roots organizations to use the courts for political purposes--to try to win from a judge the policies they were unable to obtain in the political arena.


The real irony is the fact that the Hillside Federation has used an apparent lack of public review as the basis for its lawsuit. The city held several public workshops on the General Plan Framework, and almost no one in the public paid any attention to them. A workshop in South-Central Los Angeles drew--literally--something like eight people. By contrast, the only workshops that were heavily attended were the ones in the Valley, where the Hillside Federation’s own activism had stimulated a great deal of interest. The federation was more heavily involved than any other citizen group in the city, but in the end that wasn’t enough to “win.”

Even if the Hillside Federation’s agenda is wholly political, you can’t blame the group for suing. Los Angeles is an enormous city where developers have a great deal of clout, and it’s sometimes difficult for those with a different point of view to be heard. And as the system is set up, suing is the most logical option.

But it’s unlikely that, in the end, suing will make much difference. More public hearings will be held, more paper will be generated but it’s unlikely that the actual policies contained in the framework will change much. That’s because even though the judge has sided, for now, with the Hillside Federation, the basic political dynamics at work haven’t changed. And therein lies the true weakness of citizen enforcement: It often gives frustrated citizens a false sense of hope that the courts will give them something they couldn’t obtain in the political arena.