SM CHAMBER — With 10 proposals for “development agreements” — specialized contracts generally used for large-scale real estate projects — pending at City Hall, members of the City Council are under pressure from all sides.
Groups like the Coalition for a Livable City have long sought to reign-in the pace and scale of development, calling on the council, which has final say on whether the projects get built, to postpone hearings on development agreements until after a major update to City Hall’s general plan, the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE), is completed.
Waiting until after the LUCE is adopted will give officials a better idea of the community’s vision for areas of the city where development is proposed, these groups argue, thus giving the council a better framework for considering potential projects.
City Councilman Kevin McKeown has proposed a development agreement “time-out” to his colleagues on the council, placing the idea on last night’s agenda. The council had not voted on the item by deadline Tuesday.
His proposal, though, had already enlivened the opposition.
In a letter sent Monday, the council got an earful from the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce, which opposes any plan to delay hearings on projects that are in the midst of City Hall’s approval process.
The letter written by Chris Harding, an attorney who co-chairs the chamber’s land use committee, argued that a plan to postpone development agreement hearings is “unnecessary and would be counterproductive.”
In his proposal, McKeown said the “time-out” would free up City Hall planners’ time and allow them to focus on completing the LUCE. But Harding argued that continuing with the so-called “float-up” process in which proposed projects get preliminary reviews before the Planning Commission and City Council isn’t a distraction from planners’ other work.
“We fully expect that city staff will continue to prioritize the LUCE over potential [development agreement] projects, as they should. There is no need to stop [development agreement] hearings to achieve this objective,” he wrote.
Harding also argued the “time-out” proposal would likely have the unintended consequence of speeding up the approval process for developers.
Participating in “float-up” hearings is optional, he pointed out, so if appearing at the hearings causes a burdensome delay, most developers would simply opt to skip the entire process. That, he said, would mean the public and City Hall officials would receive less information about development proposals and would play less of a role in shaping projects.
“Suspending the float-up process, even for a relatively short time, would be contrary to the public interest,” Harding concluded.
Before Tuesday’s meeting, McKeown said he was standing by his proposal.
“Development agreement hearings absorb tremendous staff and commission time,” he said, and allowing hearings on the agreements to continue before the LUCE is adopted creates a risk that council members will make “site-by-site decisions without the context of a master plan.”
McKeown’s proposal also generated a response at City Hall, with Planning and Community Development Director Eileen Fogarty issuing a memo that laid out several compromise positions the City Council could opt to take. She said the council could elect to specify a date when development agreement hearings would resume, opt to exempt certain projects that are farthest along in the float-up process or make exceptions for two projects in the pipeline that are proposed for city-owned sites.
Fogarty also cautioned that “it may be advisable to provide an assurance to project applicants that the [review] process will resume by a [certain date] in the event that the LUCE is not adopted by mid-summer as currently planned.”
Contacted Tuesday, Councilman Bob Holbrook, regarded as a business-friendly vote on the council, said he was open to a compromise. He said a planned expansion of St. Monica’s Church, for instance, should not be delayed. But he added: “I don’t mind us slowing down where it makes sense.”