City and Coastal Commission Issues
(Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a four-part story examining the proposed Highlands eldercare facility.)
Residents asked why people object to a proposed eldercare housing project in the Highlands. Circling the News learned that opponents did not object to senior housing, but rather objected to the lack of parking, the size of the structure and the lack of oversight from the City regarding an environmental review.
The News learned that there had been problems of notification for the July 11 California Coastal Commission meeting in Santa Cruz, where the commission was scheduled to hear an appeal filed by opponents of the Highlands eldercare facility.
On Monday, June 25, the CCC staff mailed empty envelopes to appellants. There were about 170 appellants, split into three groups: 1. Pacific Palisades Residents Association; 2. Attorney Robert Flick and; 3. Attorney Jonathan Klar and his wife Maria.
According to the CCC’s website, when staff realized the mistake, new envelopes were mailed out, this time with the notice about the July 11 meeting.
On July 8, Flick sent the following email to CCC staff: “I received from the CCC an unsealed empty envelope. No notice was enclosed or otherwise provided.
“Based upon my empty envelope, adequate notice of a hearing was not furnished to me with respect to my appeal.
“I again request that any pending hearing be postponed until such time as proper notice is provided.”
In a follow-up July 9 email, Flick wrote, “I just heard from another appellant that a CCC hearing will occur on this matter this coming Wednesday, July 11. I am a separate, independent appellant and would have appreciated hearing the information directly from you.
“Of course, I strenuously object to the hearing going forward this week. I did not receive adequate notice and cannot attend the hearing. I am shocked that the Commission would allow the hearing to proceed based on the staff’s incredibly shabby and deficient job of notifying interested parties. This is a shameful denial of due process.”
On July 10, Klar also wrote an email to the Commission: “Please take notice that we join in the demands of all other 170+ appellants in this case that the July 11 hearing be continued to the next available meeting of the Commission following the proper re-noticing of the hearing and publication of all required documents filed or considered in this matter by the Commission.
“Going forward would not only violate the Commission’s own rules and procedures but would violate the fundamental rights of all appellants to due process and equal protection guaranteed by the United States and California Constitutions,” Klar wrote.
Resident and appellant Marc Jackson called the CCC on July 6 and told staff that not all appellants had received a notice. At least 20 other appellants also sent emails to the Commission stating that fact.
The CCC staff admitted that they made an initial error with regard to noticing, but that a subsequent notice “had gone out well before the July 2 deadline.
“Regardless, the appellants who have raised noticing issues are fully aware that the hearing would be scheduled for the Commission’s July hearing . . .Thus, the hearing on this item has been adequately noticed and the views of all appellants have been provided to the Commission.”
The CCC could have delayed the hearing a month, which would have meant that it would have been held in Redondo Beach. In order to do that, the project applicant, Rony Shram, would have had to agree to the delay, but did not.
Some of the Coastal Commissioners will hear ex-parte requests. Two of the 12 commissioners, Stephen Padilla and Roberto Uranga, agreed to speak to Pacific Palisades Residents Association Attorney Tom Donovan.
The others did not respond, so Donovan contacted them again on July 2. Mark Vargas emailed Donovan that he no longer takes ex-parte communication and Donne Brownsey responded she only takes ex-parte when she has questions. (Ryan Sundberg, Dayna Bocho, Sara Aminzadeh, Mary Luevano, Erik Howell, Aaron Peskin, Carole Groom and Effie Turnbull-Sanders did not respond.)
At the July 11 hearing, Sundberg admitted having an ex-parte with the Highlands eldercare facility developer and his attorney. “He was willing to talk to the applicant, but not me,” Donovan said.
On the Coastal Commission website, it states that Commissioner Luevano does not take ex-parte communications. Yet at the hearing she read a July 9 text message from L.A. Councilman Mike Bonin and said, “He just wanted to let me know he is in favor of the project and most people in the community are in favor of it and that we need it.”
This reporter contacted Luevano and Sundberg for an explanation. Luevano never responded.
Sundberg replied on August 10, “We have had some technical difficulties with this email (Coastal Commission email) and I don’t recall seeing a request.”
The News emailed him back and sent the receipt that Donovan had sent, showing the request had been by phone for July 3, 6, 9 at any time that Sundberg was available.
Sundberg responded to Circling the News, “I’m on vacation with my family, please check with Commission staff for any future response. My best.”
A July 19 article in the San Luis Obispo Tribune (“Pismo Councilman Erik Howell Fined for Transparency Violations”) stated that “Coastal Commissioner Erik Howell was one of five current and former commissioners fined for violations of transparency rules.
“San Diego County Superior Court Judge Timothy Taylor’s decision to fine Howell $3,500 on July 12 comes after a two-year battle over a lawsuit filed by Spotlight on Coastal Corruption (SOCC).
“SOCC, a nonprofit organization formed to protect the California coast, filed the lawsuit August 2016, against Commissioners Howell, Martha McClure, Wendy Mitchell, Mark Vargas and Steve Kinsey.
“The lawsuit charged that Howell violated Public Resources Code requirements at least 96 times, Kinsey 140 times, McClure 82 times, Mitchell 120 times and Vargas 150 times. In the end, the commissioners had to pay $3,500, $30,300, $2,600, $7,100 and $13,000, respectively. (Howell and Varga still serve on the CCC.)
The judge wrote in his decision: “The court sincerely questions whether the mandates of the Coastal Act — the protection of natural resources with due respect for property rights — can be efficiently carried out with transparency and participatory openness using a part-time unpaid volunteer board that meets three days a month.’”
Donovan sent Coastal Analyst Denise Truong two documents: “Outline of Factors to be considered in determining if a Substantial Issue exists” on June 15 and three days later sent a second document, “Reasons to Find a Substantial Issue.”
He discovered on July 2 that the documents had not been attached to the staff report to the commissioners. He emailed Truong and told her he could see the staff report, but that on “Exhibit 8–Additional submittal from appellants,” those submissions were not attached.
Donovan wrote: “I am puzzled as to why you did not attach all the submissions we provided to you. In our meeting on 6/14/18, you assured us that we could make additional submissions and that these submissions would be made part of our Appeal and provided to the Commissioners. In a telephone conversation on 6/19/18, you again assured me that all our submissions would be reviewed, considered and provided to the Commissioners.”
He wrote in that July 2 email that the submissions were important to the appeal and that the arguments had not been discussed in the staff report.
“On behalf of Appellants, we request that the Staff Report be immediately supplemented with our submissions, posted online and also sent to the Commissioners,” Donovan said. He also noted that “the Staff Report refers to and apparently takes into consideration correspondence from the Applicant’s Agent which provides facts related to the number of the Project’s residents who will be driving, among other things. This was not attached to the Staff Report and we have never seen this.”
According to Donovan’s email, Truong, in a 6/19/18 conversation, had promised that the appellants could see any submissions received from the applicants.
When Donovan didn’t hear back, he directly emailed the submissions to the Commissioners on Friday, July 6.
Circling the News contacted Truong on August 9 to ask why the submissions had not been part of the staff report.
CCC Public Information Officer Noaki Schwartz responded on August 16, by sending the addendum from July 10. “Staff reviewed the supplemental documents and found no additional concerns arise that have not already been addressed in the staff report.”
The News asked Schwartz about an error on page 2 of the Addendum that stated: “the project site is surrounded by existing and commercial development.” About 27 percent of the project fronts against parkland and the lot has never been developed.
She was also asked about parking spaces for the Santa Ynez Trail that abuts the site.
Schwartz never responded.
In Councilman Mike Bonin’s monthly email to constituents, a story proclaimed, “Needed senior housing is coming to Pacific Palisades! Earlier this month, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously to reaffirm the City of Los Angeles’ approval of the proposed eldercare facility at 1525 N. Palisades Drive, clearing the way for the project, which will add 82 units of assisted-living housing for seniors to a currently vacant lot, to move forward. The project navigated a long road to earn the needed approvals, and Mike was proud to stand with the many Palisades neighbors who asked him to support the project.”
Opponents of the project told Circling the News that Bonin didn’t speak for them. A petition in opposition of the project, with more than 1,300 signatures, had been sent to Bonin’s office in April.
Twice this reporter has reached out to Bonin, asking just how many people in favor of the project had contacted his office, but has yet to receive a response.
Bonin, developer Rony Shram and the Pacific Palisades Community Council were asked for comment about the writ of mandate filed on July 24.
Shram said he had not seen the lawsuit and PPCC said they it only voted on appropriate use (October 26, 2017). There was no response from Bonin about the lawsuit.