Locals React to $13K Appeals Fee Hike

The city may raise the cost to file an appeal by 15,000% in order to cover its costs, officials say, including those to process additional paperwork. Photo: Isaac Bowen / Flickr Creative Commons

LOS ANGELES—The possibility the city may raise the cost to file an appeal over its land-use decisions from $89 to $13,538—in order to recover its full cost to process such appeals, officials say—has raised ire from many community activists trying to fight, what they say, is the city’s ongoing disregard for its own planning rules and guidelines.

According to city officials, without such a spike in the fees, it has to dip into the city’s general fund—which is used, in part, to cover costs for public works and transportation projects, health and sanitation and for cultural and recreational services—for about $8.5 million annually, to cover its handling costs.

But the possible 15,000% fee increase has left some scratching their heads.

“It is impossible to believe that an appeal costs the city $13,000,” said Barbara Ringuette, who provided public comment on the issue as an individual, but who also holds the title of budget advocate and co-chair of governmental affairs with the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. “Having appealed a matter … and having knowledge of how [c]ity government works, I cannot visualize how that sum was arrived at.”

City officials have said the increases are needed to pay city staff salaries and benefits; operating services and supplies; and department, divisional and citywide overhead in processing the appeals, which amounted to 266 filed last fiscal year—June 2016 to July 2017.

The issue is currently pending in two City Hall committees.

Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu said he does not support such a drastic increase, while Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell indicated he supports “reasonable increases” and will evaluate best practices of other cities and counties.

The public was given an opportunity to express its point of view over the summer.

In a written statement on the issue, the Echo Park Neighborhood Council said raising the fees so drastically “is a dereliction of one of the primary duties of government—to provide a fair and impartial system of reviewing decisions … accessible to all citizens, including minority voices, and not just those with wealth and power.”

And the Hollywoodland Homeowners Assoc. said simply, the city should consider “pension revamping,” before making such a change. The association also said the appeals process performs a vital role in city planning and should not be silenced.

“We have experienced mistakes that planning and building and safety have made in project approvals that needed correction through the appeals process,” the association’s letter stated.

The costs in question are for appeals filed by anyone other than the applicant—in most cases, a project’s developer. Applicants vying for city approvals already have to pay over $13,000 to file an appeal.

A review of other cities’ appeal fees for non-developers reveal Burbank charges $127 and Long Beach $50, on the low side, while Glendale charges $2,000. San Francisco charges $600 for such appeals.

San Diego officials recently increased the cost to file an appeal to its city council from $102 to $1,000 but all other appeal fees remain at $100.

James O’Sullivan, President of the Miracle Mile Residential Assoc., said he has been following the city’s efforts to increase appeal fees for years and suggests they are attempts to silence opposition.

“They tried this for years,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s just one more effort to push the little guy down. … It’s just mean spirited.”

But according to Doug Haines, who unsuccessfully ran to unseat current Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell earlier this year, the cost to truly appeal a development can be much higher than just the one filing fee.

For instance, he said, there are multiple levels of appeals that can be made as a potential project wends its way through city approvals.

“There are potentially three times you would have to appeal,” a project, he said, “in order to exhaust your remedies. If you have to appeal all over the place, that could cost over $40,000.”

Haines, who is also with the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Assoc. and sits on two neighborhood councils, one for which he is chair of its planning committee, has filed multiple appeals over the years, he said, “to protect my neighborhood.”

“I don’t buy their numbers,” he said. “It does not make any sense. … It’s all a ruse, an excuse to bar people from exercising their rights.”

While the city’s administrative officer has recommended such a drastic price jump, its Dept. of Planning has suggested the fee be raised to $271, though doing so would only minimally help offset what the city says are its handling costs.

According to an August report from the city’s interim city administrative officer, the city’s 2017-2018 budget assumed a jump in such fees to the higher $13,538 amount.

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