Whose fault is it, anyways?

By Douglas P. Carstens, Chatten-Brown & Carstens

The LA Times recently wrote another story about a city’s failure to require a developer to provide even the most basic, accurate information about a potentially life-threatening situation created when a huge residential and commercial building was sited on a likely earthquake fault.  The story from Aug. 15, 2013, “Tower project exposes gaps in LA’s oversight” could have been written about too many public agencies exercising overly lax oversight of projects.  Many of these projects adversely affect public health, safety, and welfare, but are rubberstamped quickly either in the interest of generating alleged economic activity or because of shortages of trained staff.  Some public agencies need to be reminded their responsibility is to protect the public, not serve the interests of developers and project proponents.

Real estate developers in Los Angeles’ Hollywood area obtained the city’s approval of large, multi-story skyscraper residential and commercial developments along the Hollywood earthquake fault without the city requiring a detailed fault investigation.  The Millenium Hollywood project and others have been approved without the detailed studies state geologists say are necessary to precisely locate the Hollywood fault.  According to the LA Times, the Hollywood fault runs through the area that has seen a boom in development over the last decade.  Experts say the Hollywood fault is capable of producing a devastating earthquake.  But the city has accepted developers’ assurances that the Hollywood fault is far away on someone else’s property, and green lighted the projects, “despite well-documented studies showing that the property is much closer, and possibly on top of, the fault.” [Emphasis mine.]

Some officials in Sacramento are currently seeking to scale back environmental laws, specifically the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), in response to development business interest demands.  They protest that CEQA restricts their ability to build projects.  Translation: it interferes with their ability to make profits without examining the consequences of their actions or answering to the public who must live with the projects for years to come.   When an earthquake strikes, the developer of the proposed project will likely be long gone, and it will be left to those living and working in the buildings, the emergency service providers,, and ultimately government with public tax dollars to pick up the pieces and pay the costs that could have been avoided at the start of the process by better oversight.  The same goes for projects in wildfire hazard areas and flood zones.  As the proverb says, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  But preventive review is too often circumvented in the interest of expediting development.

The subtitle of the LA Times story is “Community activists, not city planners, take the lead in bringing Hollywood fault concerns to light.”  It is great that community activists have been empowered by CEQA to be able to bring these concerns to light.  But we should be very concerned that it falls to volunteer activists to identify concerns that planners and city officials on the public payroll should have caught in the first place.

The president of a local civic association in LA, one of the “community activists” lauded in the article, George Abrahams, said, “We shouldn’t have to do this policing. . .We’re doing the due diligence the city should be doing.  And it shouldn’t be like that.”

The exposé of the Millenium Hollywood project illustrates the urgency of correcting several recent court decisions that held thatCEQA looks at impacts of the project on the environment, but must disregard the impacts of where the project is sited on the project itself.  PCL has led the charge in trying to fix this and clarify that CEQA is concerned with things like wildfire, flood, and earthquake risk to buildings and their inhabitants, but some State legislators, egged on by organizations like the California Building Industry Association, oppose this common sense clarification to CEQA.

If we allow developers and insiders in public agencies to control the environmental review processes, locking out members of the public and obscuring or failing to gather vital information, the consequences could be dire.  Whose fault is it? With diligence and strong laws, we should always get adequate review of the impacts on a project of the existing environment (like earthquake faults and fire hazards) and maintain and improve public participation.