CITY HALL — In a preview of an expected showdown before the City Council next month, accusations between neighborhood groups and the Chamber of Commerce are flying over City Hall’s long-studied general plan update known as the Land Use and Circulation Element (LUCE).

The document, which sets out a vision for growth in Santa Monica and places limits on building height and density for new construction, will go before the council in June for final approval after more than six years of discussion.

City Hall officials have said they are confident the LUCE is close to completion, but it’s clear there’s still plenty to be hashed out before the council adopts a final version.

Responding to a series of recommendations to change the LUCE contained in recent letters from the chamber subcommittee to City Hall officials, a coalition of neighborhood activists on Wednesday blasted the organization for what they called its eleventh-hour attempt to circumvent the public process.

In a letter to the Planning Commission on Wednesday, seven Santa Monica neighborhood groups accused the chamber of “engaging in a blatant attempt to derail the core vision and policies of the LUCE” by inserting development-friendly provisions into the document after most residents assumed it had been finalized. The letter urged the commission to reject all of the chamber’s suggestions.

The letters from the chamber’s LUCE subcommittee sent this month have argued for higher maximum heights in some areas of the city, slightly higher by-right building heights in other areas, and more flexibility for developers to build commercial space above a project’s ground floor, among other changes.

Zina Josephs, who heads the Friends of Sunset Park, one of the groups that signed on to the letter, said the chamber’s recommendations are contrary to the message residents sent to City Hall planners during years of public meetings on the LUCE.

“The people in the neighborhood groups attended the workshops and asked for lower heights and less density. And now this chamber group is coming in at the last minute and asking for higher heights and more density,” she said.

Land use attorney Chris Harding, who co-chairs the chamber’s LUCE subcommittee, immediately fired back, calling the neighborhood groups’ letter “inaccurate” and saying it “is more about politics than policy.”

Most of the chamber’s recommendations, he said, focus on technical points of the LUCE and don’t significantly change its vision.

“If the vast majority of people in these [neighborhood] groups knew the facts and knew how inaccurate their letter was, they would be embarrassed by it,” Harding said.

He said the chamber is not pushing to allow more development. Most of the proposed changes, he said, are geared toward facilitating better building design and making smart development more practical.

He also rejected the groups’ assertion that the chamber’s recommendations for changing the LUCE have come at the last minute.

“If there’s any surprise about the chamber’s recommendations it’s because they haven’t been paying close attention to our prior participation,” Harding said.

He added it’s ironic that one of the neighborhood groups, the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, was a major force behind Measure T, a failed 2008 ballot initiative to limit development that Harding characterized as an “end-run” around the LUCE process.

SMCLC Co-Chair Diana Gordon said her coalition, and the rest of Santa Monica’s neighborhood groups, remain opposed to the chamber’s efforts to influence decision makers at City Hall after public workshops to shape the LUCE have concluded.

“This is a cynical attempt by developers at the last minute to try and delay and derail a six year public process to come up with a master plan for Santa Monica’s future,” Gordon said.

No conflict, but disclosure required

In another sign mounting LUCE-related tension, the leaders of several neighborhood groups this week also wrote to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie to inquire whether two Planning Commissioners who are also architects have a conflict of interest.

Written by Mary Marlow, president of the Ocean Park Association, the e-mail to Moutrie said two commissioners had allegedly consulted with the Chamber of Commerce before the group made recommendations about changing the LUCE to the commission.

“Should these architects recuse themselves from consideration of the proposals from this group due to their involvement, coupled with their potential financial interest?” Marlow asked in the e-mail.

Attempts to reach the Planning Commissioners in question, Hank Koning and Gwynne Pugh, were not successful on Wednesday. Harding said the chamber’s LUCE subcommittee met with Pugh and other architects who have worked in Santa Monica to discuss “purely technical” aspects of design in order to formulate recommendations.

“They were a resource for us,” he said of the architects. “We weren’t lobbying them and they weren’t involved in developing our recommendations other than to provide us with [technical] advice,” Harding said. He added Koning was not able to attend the subcommittee’s meetings with architects.

Responding to Marlow’s inquiry, Moutrie said there was no conflict of interest, but “because the commissioners apparently participated in the formulation of a recommendation which will be assessed by the commission on which they serve, they should publicly disclose their participation in formulating the recommendation in order to avoid the appearance of concealing their role in formulating the recommendation.”

Contacted Wednesday, Marlow said she was pleased with Moutrie’s determination.

“The right of the public to know has really been vindicated by the city attorney,” she said.

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