The Project Approval Process is the Wild West

Hardly a day passes when a new approved project filled with exemptions, exceptions and questionable mass and scale issues doesn’t pop up. Who cares? Is anyone watching? The answer is no. No one is really watching. If anything happens around here to rein in the scofflaws it is because of an accidental observation or fed up reaction to it from some resident. And that happens only when an alarm bell is ringing really loud.

The damage that has been done to Venice because of simple ennui and ‘benign neglect’ by the ‘deciders’ is way beyond what any of you realize. Only when you start adding up the approvals and inconsistencies from Planning and Zoning Administration over the past seven years or so does the magnitude of the damage done to this small town become powerful and meaningful to Venice’s quality of life. Much of the parking deficit and increasing gridlock problems are self-inflicted, caused by careless decisions from various departments. They need a mandate to do no harm. None of the deciders are concerned if decisions they make might be harmful in the future. If they can mark that box in an application with an X they are good to go.

The bottom line: Planning does not plan. There is no charter from its highest level to plan. Enforcement does not enforce. Enforcement rarely happens no matter how egregious the offense might be. Only when residents make ‘big noise’ with the higher-ups does a problem even get anyone’s attention. This problem is at every level in the city. When you can’t get anyone’s attention, your temperature boils and you worry that if a real big problem happens around this place we are going to be in real trouble — this town is run like some kind of Banana Republic. Anything goes.

If we did not have an active and attentive council office things would be much much worse. But why should residents have to turn to the council office to get ‘saved.’ They shouldn’t. Why should residents have to be the sheriff around here to try to effect a system that works — fairly and thoughtfully?

When you look more deeply into the approval process it reveals many ‘discretionary’ approvals and ‘interpretations’ allowing for reduced parking, no parking at all, restaurant expanded service areas without required parking and worse. Never are these discretionary decisions made with concern if it is good for the community. The latest revelation was that Planning actually made ‘discretionary’ decisions on a project under the purview of the California Coastal Commission. They have no authority to do that. But they did it. The Planning Department has become the actual ‘enemy within.’ This needs to be reined in and fast and a new mission put forth which will look at projects requiring discretion with eyes focused on what is good for neighborhoods and what will be good for the longer term.

If projects actually were planned within the scope of the current Venice Specific Plan many arguments would never develop between developers and residents. When the plan is silent on a particular issue, Planning should be directed to make their ‘discretionary’ decisions in concert with the spirit and intent of the Venice Specific Plan. The VSP is the superior ‘decider’ in Venice and it should be respected not thwarted by using creative loopholes.

The VSP is a plan that needs updating for sure. Changing conditions in Venice these last 10 years demand its update. But, for the moment, it is the operative document. Applying the city code to Venice issues as an override to the VSP is wrong and illegal.

Is there anyone at the top of the Planning and Zoning Administration departments who will step out — take a little risk of shaking things up — and take a hard look at the mess their decisions have created here in Venice? We’re hoping. What else can we do?