Nearly two-thirds of appeals against Westwood businesses and properties in the last 20 years were made by the same three community members.
A document compiled by the Los Angeles Department of City Planning listed 72 appeals made since 1998. Of the 72 appeals, 61% were filed by the same three community members in a community of over 50,000. Appeals are alteration requests filed with the Los Angeles Department of City Planning addressing areas including building amenities, violations to city plans and conditions on operating.
Grayson Peters, a North Westwood Neighborhood Council member and second-year political science student, released the document on Facebook on Monday.
Peters said he thinks the documents reveal an abuse of the appeal process. He added he thinks this abuse has caused business stagnation and high storefront vacancy in Westwood Village.
Steve Sann, chair of the Westwood Community Council, is listed as filing 23 appeals, making up nearly one-third of all appeals since 1998. However, Sann said three of those appeals were not correct because he represented another community member and one was to readdress a previous appeal. Seven of his appeals were filed specifically against businesses’ use of alcohol. Sandy Brown, president of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association, filed 10 appeals. Brown said one appeal did not pertain to Westwood Village. An additional three appeals were filed under the association directly. Wolfgang Veith, a member of the Westwood Community Council, filed 11 appeals.
Sann said he operates as an individual, and does not consult with Brown or Veith when filing appeals.
The Department of City Planning compiled the list and last updated it in September 2018. At least one appeal has been made since then by Veith, against changing a UCLA fraternity house to an apartment complex, according to city planning documents.
The department did not respond to request for comment on current appeals.
Westwood Forward, a coalition of students and stakeholders aiming to revitalize Westwood, recently campaigned to save a longstanding sports bar from closing. They decided to publicize Westwood’s history of obstructionism and bureaucratic setbacks, Peters said in an email statement.
“The problem is that, as the list shows, a very small minority of Westwood stakeholders has disproportionately accounted for a clear majority of appeals made to the Los Angeles planning department over the past 20 years,” Peters said.
While appeals can be filed by any member of the public, every appeal costs the appellant $89 and the city $13,538, according to city documents.
A business must have some plans filed to zoning or city administrators before an appeal can be made, said Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association – a non-profit organization tasked with improving the state of Westwood. The Westwood Community Design Review Board also provides recommendations to city planning on project applications. The appeal is then sent to the West Los Angeles Area Planning Commission where they plan a public hearing for both parties, upon which they make a decision to either grant or deny the appeal.
Thomas said the numerous appeals filed from the three community members created a perception that opening a business in Westwood is challenging.
Business owners who receive appeals are faced with stalled business openings and extra fees, Thomas said. While they fight the appeal, some business owners are also paying rent months before they are able to finish the appeal process and open.
Broxton Brewery & Public House faced setbacks due to a window restoration project which Sann filed an appeal against. Eventually, the business owner withdrew the project plans to add a window to the property because it would have cost an additional $16,000 in consultant fees to fight the appeal, according to city planning documents.
A business also faced an appeal due to conditions placed on the building by the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which regulates the state’s alcohol consumption and sale.
In one case, Rocco’s Tavern faced an appeal after installing windows that could open, allowing sound to travel out of the establishment. They were instructed to install fixed windows. Maurice Meyers filed the appeal, on behalf of Gayley Properties, LLC. Other businesses faced appeals because they do not provide the amount of parking required by the Westwood Village Specific Plan, a zoning ordinance created in 1989.
In addition, several building plans have been appealed because the buildings exceeded the maximum height for the Village. Businesses like Tocaya Organica faced appeals against their alcohol license applications.
Sann said he files appeals because he cares about the character and history of Westwood. He often voices his opinions in meetings for the neighborhood council, the association and the Design Review Board.
“Sometimes when the city does something wrong, on those rare occasions, I have to take it to an appeal because I believe the city made a mistake,” Sann said.
Brown said she speaks for homeowners when appealing a business or property. She added parking is a major issue in Westwood and she has tried to address it and other violations to the Westwood Village Specific Plan through appeals.
“I’m not against anybody. I’m just trying to bring in the perspective of people who live in Westwood,” Brown said. “We just try to make it as good as we can for our neighborhood: safe, clean, beautiful, (with) streets working.”
Peters said the appeal list document is not intended to stop community input on businesses and zoning issues in Westwood. Rather, it was meant to expose the three community members.
Thomas said he feels the main issue about excessive appeals is that the three community members are not representative of the entire Village. He added he thinks the city should address these concerns and increase transparency on the individuals filing the appeals.
A board member of the Holmby Westwood Property Owners Association said at a Department of City Planning public hearing in September 2018 for Tocaya Organica that Brown did not represent the beliefs of the association and filed an appeal without consulting the association. In addition, many Holmby Westwood residents submitted emails to the city in favor of granting Tocaya an alcohol license.
The NWWNC will discuss limiting appeals against existing or prospective businesses at a meeting Wednesday.