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Wandering Palms, Reforming CEQA, Rewriting Prop. 13, and Updating Where We Are

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D.J. Waldie follows up on past stories from his KCET column Where We Are

Our wandering palm: The Noirish Los Angeles research team has wrapped up -- for now -- the saga of the city's sesquicentenary palm, which may be the oldest in the city. They've traced photographs of the iconic Exposition Park palm to the 1870s ... to a home on San Pedro Street ... and to the probable property owner: Dr. William A Hammel (whose son, also named William A. Hammel, was Los Angeles County Sheriff in 1899).

Amazingly, they've documented which of the many palms on the Hammel property was transplanted to the Arcade Station in 1888, as well as its history there. And NLA researcher Flyingwedge has now extended the palm's provenance from the Arcade Station to its replanting at the edge of what is now Exposition Park.

All of this work was done by NLA's volunteer researchers, using the digital resources of the Los Angeles Public Library, the USC Digital Library, the California State Library, and the Huntington Library (among others).

In the process, the Hammels, the wandering of other Los Angeles palms, the place of railroading in the city's history, and the significance of palm trees in the city's self-definition have been explored.

 The Wandering Palm in 1918 at the edge of Exposition Park (to the right of the red line)
The Wandering Palm in 1918 at the edge of Exposition Park (to the right of the red line)  | Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library

Apart from knowing that a survivor of Gilded Age Los Angeles stands watch over the entrance to the Memorial Coliseum, what delights me in this story is the presence of the city's past in archival materials available to anyone with an Internet connection and an irresistible itch to become more native to this place.

Rewriting the California Environmental Quality Act: The state Legislature initially churned out almost 30 bills intended to fix the 40-year-old California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which has bi-partisan status as the law that no one likes. About 20 bills affecting CEQA remain after a round of committee hearings.

Only the naïve can think that CEQA "reform" is motivated by the idealism of legislators. What moves bills in Sacramento are favors given and received, power brokered and applied. Which explains why Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's CEQA bill has the best chance of making it to Governor Brown's desk.

"I think I'm in a good position here to get things done," Steinberg told reporters. Indeed.

Steinberg's bill would create new "thresholds of significance" for the environmental impacts required to be studied (and mitigated) under CEQA. A project would generally be immune from CEQA litigation if the impact -- traffic or noise, for example -- fell below one of these "thresholds."

Worryingly, the thresholds themselves aren't in the bill. These would be worked up through an administrative process that risks being less transparent and more open to influence.

The bill also removes aesthetics from CEQA consideration. This change -- one urged by developers for years -- would prevent opponents from using the sheer ugliness of a project as justification for a CEQA challenge.

At its core, CEQA is about community involvement in the planning process and transparency in assessing the risks and rewards of any new development. "Reform" that undercuts these goals - however imperfectly they have been achieved in the past - is no reform at all, only a massive gift to commercial property owners and developers of speculative residential projects.

Horror stories of CEQA "greenmail" and the antics of NIMBY-ists are given as reasons for rewriting the rules. Currently lost in the Legislature's hustle to fix CEQA are the thousands of projects that have been made better -- aesthetically and functionally -- by the environmental review process.

Getting back to Proposition 13: Skeptics of Proposition 13's limitations on tax measures have offered six constitutional amendments that would, among other things, lower the voter threshold for new taxes from a supermajority of 66 percent to a really big majority of fifty-five percent.

Don't expect to see any Prop. 13 fixes on the ballot this year or next, however.

Also stalled is legislation that would separate residential property tax rolls from business properties (including rentals) and change how commercial properties are assessed. That idea may get a second chance, thanks to how Prop. 13 treated Michael Dell to a million-dollar-a-year tax cut.

Based on feature of Prop. 13 specifically designed to benefit corporate owners, buyers avoid reassessment of their property if none of the new owners has more than a 50 percent stake in the transaction. As the Sacramento Bee pointed out in a recent editorial:

Computer magnate Michael Dell, the billionaire buyer of the iconic Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, structured his $200 million purchase in 2006 so that none of the purchasers -- the billionaire, his wife and two other partners -- acquired 50 percent ownership. So even though 100 percent of the property changed hands, no reassessment was triggered and the hotel's new owners were able to avoid approximately $1 million a year in additional property taxes.

The Bee also noted another of the essentially anti-competitive aspects that the backers of Prop. 13 built into the law in 1978: "New businesses considering moving to California or expanding operations here face an uneven playing field. Their long-established competitors will pay a fraction of the property taxes the new business pays."

Prop. 13, it seems, wasn't just about pensioners and their property tax bill.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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