A seemingly routine matter before the West Hollywood Planning Commission on Thursday night turned into a heated debate about the city’s obligation to give residents adequate information about issues that affect them.
The Commission was considering a state-mandated amendment to the zoning laws changing the definition of “special needs housing” to make it easier to open emergency shelters, homeless shelters, transitional housing and single-room occupancy (SRO) housing. The item would have declared the entire length of Santa Monica Boulevard as an appropriate place for special needs housing.
In the end the Commission voted unanimously to continue the item until its next meeting on Jan. 17, 2013. In the meantime, the Commission instructed city staff to send notices to the entire city.
Because it has the potential to affect the entire city, the Commission asked how notification about the hearing was conducted. City staff said it had posted notices in standard locations (City Hall, the sheriff’s station, the library and Plummer Park), printed a notice in the Beverly Press and sent out mailings.
Commissioner Donald DeLuccio said he had received a mailing about the hearing through his neighborhood association, but the rest of the commissioners said they did not receive any such mailing.
The seven people speaking during public comment also said they had not received notice.
“It seems like a very serious, complicated zone-text amendment and yet we’re just all finding out about it now,” said resident Lauren Meister. “There’s been no outreach to the public, not to residents and I doubt that there’s been any outreach to businesses. If I was a business owner on Santa Monica Boulevard, I’d sure as hell want to be here.”
“The biggest problem is the idea of what outreach is,” said resident Cathy Blaivas. “Something that is going to go the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, there needs to be better notification.”
Commissioner John Altschul not only criticized staff for not sending notices to the entire city, but also for sending notices with confusing wording, calling them “unintelligible.”
Melissa Antol, the city’s long range and mobility planning manager, reminded everyone that the state was requiring the zone-text amendment, and that the Commission had no option but to approve it.
“What we’re trying to do is follow the state guidelines citing that we need to provide for these housing options in residential-zone districts,” Antol said. “It’s not like by listening to people, it’s not as though we have an option to not do it if people don’t like it.”
“What is the harm when it’s something with the potential to affect so many stakeholders in letting them know what’s going on?” Altschul said. “Should we cede our obligation to the public? Giving notice to the entire community is the least we can do.”
City staff said the state required the zone-text amendment to be passed within one year of the adoption of the new General Plan, the document that guides development in the city for the next 25 years. After a four-year process, the City Council approved the General Plan in December 2011.
“Why are we so close to the limit when we’re about to have this discussion?” asked resident Stephanie Harker. “The community feels left out. They should be a part of this at all levels, not when it’s almost passed and ready to go to the council.”
DeLuccio wondered why the item hadn’t come to the commission sooner, noting that the commission had had a very light schedule for the past six months.
Commissioner Marc Yeber pointed out that since the City Council also has to approve the item, the state mandated one-year deadline will have already passed before it could become law.
City attorney Christi Hogin said the city had a little bit of leeway with the deadline.
The staff report on the item also came under fire. Altschul severely criticized it.
“There is no attention paid to the feelings of the community, to the sensibilities of the community, to the rights and privileges of the community,” Altschul said. “The options and the decisions should be made after good analysis and good input. There’s no good analysis here and there’s no substantial input.”
Meister also questioned why the staff report didn’t include a report from the sheriff’s department since this was a matter affecting public safety.
City staff said Santa Monica Boulevard had been designated as the location for the special needs housing during the General Plan meetings.
Resident Elyse Eisenberg said she had attended almost every General Plan meeting the city held and homeless shelters, transitional housing, etc. were never mentioned.
Resident Allegra Allison questioned the quality-of-life issues since there is the potential for homeless shelters to pop up on every block of Santa Monica Boulevard.
“Having homeless shelters available across the entire city will affect businesses hugely, public safety hugely,” said Allison.
Allison also compared Thursday night’s affair to the concerns residents had years ago involving the KLEAN Treatment Center, an upscale drug and alcohol rehab facility that residents felt snuck into the Norma Triangle area without properly informing the neighborhood beforehand.
Norma Triangle resident Judson Green, one of the many who fought KLEAN, was also upset.
“I’m not sure why we’re forced to live on the defensive in our homes,” said Green.
Staff pointed out that just because shelters and transitional housing would be permitted on Santa Monica Boulevard didn’t mean that such housing would actually be built. Staff said there were better uses for spaces on Santa Monica Boulevard and that money was still needed to fund the housing.