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Masters of Development

The top 50 masterplanned communities in the United States were just announced by John Burn Real Estate Consulting, and I’m extremely proud to have had a hand in the success of numbers 2, 20, 22 and 23 – which together provided 2,539 new homes to families last year.

The Irvine Company was #2 on the list.  I’ve done a lot of work for this visionary company over the years, including helping to secure the approval of Turtle Ridge and winning some of the fundamental regulatory victories that made much of Irvine possible. (See #22 below for more on this.)

Number 20 was Valencia (“Where Awesome Lives“), developed by Newhall Land/Five Point Communities. Besides PR assignments for Valencia, I was deeply involved in securing the approvals for Newhall Ranch, which should be joining the top 50 masterplanned communities in the near future. (That link, by the way, takes you to the website I developed for the project several years ago.)

Coming in at #22 was Rancho Mission Viejo‘s new Ranch Plan communities. For over a decade, I worked with Rancho Mission Viejo, The Irvine Company and others to create the solutions to  endangered species and wetlands issues that helped make hundreds of communities across Southern California possible while preserving hundreds of square miles of valuable habitat.

Just behind at #23 was Kennecott’s Daybreak in Salt Lake County Utah. My assignment here wasn’t the usual regulatory heavy lifting – instead, I helped create the marketing vision and language for all of Kennecott’s proposed developments. It was one of the most creative and satisfying tasks of my career.

I’m also thrilled to see Shea Homes, Pardee Homes, William Lyon Homes, DMB and Brookfield on the list. They have all been great clients at one time or another (and I’m currently working on exciting projects with Shea and DMB), but I can’t claim credit for working  on the masterplans that are on this year’s Top 50 list.

Maybe their next ones ….

Home Is Where The Good Quotes Are

I heard two great lines at the recent No Place Like Home conference at the Disney Grand Californian.

The first was from British philosopher Samuel Johnson: “The end of all striving is to be happy at home.” Amen. Laer Pearce & Associates has been involved in the regulatory approvals of 400,000 homes, and we hope they are bring much happiness to their owners.

Lakewood as it came to market

The second came from the dinner keynote speaker, Kevin Starr, former California State Historian and author of a fantastic multi-volume  history of our state. He asked, “Will there be there new Lakewoods in California’s future, or only new Carmels?” Lakewood, of course, is the massive suburban housing tract that meant a new beginning for thousands of post-World War II Angelenos.

Starr’s question is sad, indeed. California is supposed to be the place you go to realize your dreams, but the ever-increasing price of admission is turning too many away.  One study of the added costs regulations impose on housing found that out of 250 cities studied, the 20 with the highest regulatory burden are all in California.

That’s ridiculous, and it’s what we at Laer Pearce & Associates have dedicated our careers to fighting. California has a chronic supply/demand disparity caused only in part by a large population and an appealing climate and mystique.  More, it’s regulations. litigation and and legislative and judicial foolishness that make California a place that has priced out the up-and-comers. Home costs in California have risen so much, and regulations have become so snobbish and excluding that it is hard indeed to imagine a new Lakewood.

That’s too bad and it doesn’t bode well for our state’s future. Neither does the fact that thanks to the Coastal Commission, it’s just as hard to imagine a new Carmel.

Overthrow the Master Bedrooms!

Political correctness has struck again, and homebuilders best take notice. It seems the long-used term “master bedroom” isn’t just racist, it’s sexist. So says the Baltimore Business Journal:

Not that kind of “master” suite!

The “master suite” is being phased out — not from our homes, but from our lexicon.

A survey of 10 major Washington, D.C.-area homebuilders found that six no longer use the term “master” in their floor plans to describe the largest bedroom in the house. They have replaced it with “owner’s suite” or “owner’s bedroom” or, in one case, “mastre bedroom.”

Why? In large part for exactly the reason you would think: “Master” has connotation problems, in gender (it skews toward male) and race (the slave-master).

This strikes us as OK if a little silly. Not as silly as “mastre bedroom,” but silly nonetheless.

If you, like we, don’t want all sorts of N-words, J-words, W-words and S-words (we’ll leave it to you to fill in the blanks) being thrown around, you’ve got to accept that the PC Loons will determine a whole host of words are offensive. Having just watched “42″ and squirmed through the scene where the Phillies manager berated Jackie Robinson with a host of nasty racial invectives, we’re glad we rarely are exposed to such deliberate demeaning of others today. So OK, “master bedroom” it’s not.

But it’s silly because the suggested alternatives, owner’s suite and owner’s bedroom, are just as likely to be attacked by the PC crowd as master bedroom.

For starters, there’s that tricky apostrophe. “Owner’s” suite says we’re single or don’t think much of our mate, both of which, if not true, are offensive. “Owners’” assumes two owners, and that’s … what … singlist? It certainly would make this single parent uncomfortable, if we were a single parent, which we’re not. How could we be if we are “we” all the time?

And then, Mr. Homebuilder (or Ms. Homebuilder, or Mr./Ms. Gender-Questioning Homebuilder), are you implying that one mate “owns” the other, or “owns” their kids? If you use that, you’re demean whomever the owned party is, making you a sexist and a … what …  childist? And you’re a classist, too, because saying that we “own” that room obviously is just a code word for disparaging renters and hating the homeless.

Perhaps homebuilders can resolve this quandary by calling it Bedroom #1. No wait. That’s childist, isn’t it? Why should the parent’s/partners’ bedroom rate higher than the child’s? And if Grammy has moved in, then you’re ageist, too.

How about “the larger bedroom with the walk-in closets and the bigger bath?” Yeah, that should do it. If there’s not enough room on the floorplan for all that, just put TLBWTW-ICATBB. Wait. That could get you in trouble with dyslexics.

I Before E?

Yeah, you’ve got this nailed. It’s “I before E except after C,” and that means spelling is no problem. Well, how about this:

I before E except when you run a feisty heist on a weird beige foreign neighbor.

We would never run a feisty heist on our weird beige foreign neighbor (We don’t even think he’s all that weird!), but we certainly admit we’ve been caught up in spelling errors ourselves.

Oh, you’ve got spell-check, do you? Great!

Eye halve a spelling checker
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marks four my revue miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a quay and type a word and weight for it to say
Weather eye yam wrong oar write.
It shows me strait a weigh as soon as a mist ache is maid.
It nose bee fore two long and eye can put the error rite.
Its rare lea ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it,
I am shore your pleased to no.
Its letter perfect awl the way.
My checker told me sew.

We present all this to make a point. Spelling, as challenging as it can be at times, is simple compared to the communications challenges most of our clients face.  Challenges like these:

  • A developer needs to make concerned neighbors understand what a traffic study really says about what traffic will be like after a proposed project is built;
  • A water district must raise rates and needs to show its customers why the increase is necessary and why water is still an excellent value;
  • A public agency, facing complex new regulations from both Sacramento and Washington D.C., needs to explain to its constituencies what will change and why;
  • A mall owner needs to reassure shoppers that a mall is just as safe as all the others in town, even though someone was just stabbed in its parking lot;
  • An industry group needs to show regulators and the public that the technology they support is safe and necessary, even though opposition groups rail against it.

These are all actual experiences we have dealt with, and in each case, we found communications solutions that worked, helping our clients achieve their strategic goals. That’s why our mantra is “Clutter in, clarity out,” and why we like to say, “If it’s regulated, we can communicate it.”

Crazifornia: Regulating the rockets’ red glare

The following article by Laer appears on today’s Daily Caller website:

It should come as no surprise that the leftist legislators and authoritarian bureaucrats who run California are vehemently opposed to fireworks shows. After all, the shows are always fun and usually patriotic.

And against them they are. The California Coastal Commission has led the charge with a multi-year assault on the Sea World theme park in San Diego, which blasts fireworks over Mission Bay every night. That effort shipwrecked on the rocks of Sea World’s considerable political clout and even more considerable legal budget, so the Commission looked for a more vulnerable, less wealthy target.

(more…)

Winning support for apartment projects

A recent event titled Multifamily Building Boom caught our attention.  We haven’t seen the two words – building & boom – used together for awhile, so we bought a ticket to this Building Industry Association program.

It turns out, there is a bit of a boom happening.   Economic conditions and government policies are driving Southern Californians to rent apartments – which is great news for apartment builders.

That’s the good news that was shared.  The tough news was that the entitlement process for proposed apartment communities (typically located on infill sites) can be very difficult.  Opposition from existing neighbors is often so intense that local governments have difficulty approving even the best projects.

Small-group meetings are an effective way to introduce your project to the community in an infill area.

What’s the solution?   Laer Pearce & Associates has developed five guidelines – based on our 20+ years of entitlement consulting – for successfully working with neighbors of proposed infill projects.

  1. Start with a simple introduction: Start small. Send a letter, hold a small group meeting.  Let your new neighbors get to know more about you and your concept.  Be prepared to explain why the existing land use (be it a golf course or industrial site) is no longer viable and why your plan can be a positive alternative.  It’s critical they understand there’s a real need for change other than your bottom line.
  2. Be inclusive and responsive: Create opportunities for two-way dialog with your neighbors so you can get input during the design process, and eventual buy-in on the final plan.  If you can’t incorporate a neighbor’s idea, explain why.  He or she will appreciate that you tried.
  3. Paint the picture: Invest in professional materials that help tell your story through words, pictures, sketches and video.  These materials help neighbors overcome their concerns, and strengthen the opinion of those who want you to succeed.
  4. Build a coalition:  It is important that decision-makers see a strong coalition of supporters from diverse backgrounds.  Your supporters will typically come from neighbors who you’ve built relationships with by starting small and being inclusive and responsive.
  5. Deal with opponents: Opposition groups will form against most infill projects – especially when rentals or affordable housing are involved. You need to be prepared to respond to misleading statements that cross the line.  We add “that cross the line” because it’s important that you do not get distracted responding to every negative claim that’s made.

These guidelines will go a long way in decreasing the duration and cost of the entitlement process and increasing your chances of success.

Brown Takes on Greens over (Some) Anti-Growth Litigation

Governor Brown almost sounded like a frustrated land developer earlier today when he talked about the impact litigation by environmental activists has on projects that are essential to meeting California’s demographic growth and protecting its frail economy.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about the ecos’ endless legal challenges to new housing developments.

From the Sacramento Bee:

“In Oakland, I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush,” Brown, the city’s former mayor, said at a renewable energy conference in Los Angeles.  “Talk a little bit, but at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy.”

Brown said his office will “act to overcome the opposition,” helping projects overcome permitting and environmental challenges. The Democratic governor announced Friday that he had filed a legal brief urging a federal judge to deny litigation seeking to block a solar energy project in the Mojave Desert.

Yes, the governor is willing to “crush” the very environmentalists who were his strong supporters in the 2010 election – but only as long as it’s over government-subsidized alternative energy schemes. Providing housing for Californians? Rebooting the failed economy? Putting thousands back to work? That’s apparently not worth fighting for.

We’re not sure what we feel about government “crushing” environmental litigators. Having seen them slow so many very well-planned new home communities, driving up costs for consumers and driving down profits for businesses in the process, we confess we’re a bit tickled by the idea.

But two things bother us:  First, we can’t deny we’re sticklers for due process and are more than a little concerned when government gets heavy-handed and agenda-driven.  And second, we’d like to see an acknowledgment that useless litigation is just as bad when it’s used as a tool against home builders and, ultimately, home buyers.

Excuse Me, Is Your Mission Creeping?

Federal wetland regulators suffered a bad decade in the 2000s with the Rapanos and SWANCC decisions temporarily halting EPA and Corps of Engineers mission creep into the regulation of land no one but a regulator could consider to be “Waters of the US” or wetlands.

But like those nasty spirits in Poltergeist, they’re baaa-aack.

EPA released today a draft guidance it hopes will clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act in light of these decisions and which are not.  To our reading, it seems the agency is a bit forgetful of the power the Judicial Branch has over the Executive Branch. For example, borrowing from a summary provided by the Association of California Water Agencies, the guidance would deem the following as protected waters:

  • Traditional navigable waters [check]
  • Interstate waters [check]
  • Wetlands adjacent to either traditional navigable waters or interstate waters [watch out!]
  • Non-navigable tributaries to traditional navigable waters that are relatively permanent, meaning they contain water at least seasonally [watch out!]
  • Wetlands that directly abut relatively permanent waters [watch out!]

How long is a season? When do waters become relatively impermanent? How adjacent is adjacent? For an administration that doesn’t like loopholes when they apply to corporations, these seem like loopholes of a drive-a-truck-through-it scale.

There’s another bunch of possibilities too, like if a “significant nexus” [how significant?] is found, then “wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional tributaries to traditional navigable waters” would be under federal jurisdiction, as well as that good ol’ regulatory Pandora’s box, “other waters.”

We were glad to see swimming pools specifically excluded.  More significantly, “erosional features (rills and gullies) … that are not tributaries or wetlands” are excluded. This is significant in the arid West, where these features, no matter how ephemeral, have been subject to regulation as if they were little Mississippi Rivers and Okefenokee Swamps.

On the plus side, the Obama administration has just ensured unemployment insurance claims from attorneys with Clean Water Act expertise will dry up like a Utah rill in August.

The guidance is now undergoing a 60-day comment period.

The Rise of the Referendum

City councils in Azusa, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente each approved major land use projects over the past few months.  All three of these projects are now in a battle for survival as voters attempt to overturn project approvals through the referendum process.

These three incidents should serve as a cautionary tale for property owners:  You don’t just need the support of decision-makers; you need the support of more than 50 percent of the voters.  This support should be secured prior to a vote of a city council or board of supervisors because referendum signature gathering begins immediately after project approval.

As Orange County’s leading public affairs firm, we’ve helped clients defeat referendum drives. In one instance, our efforts helped give Yorba Linda its own high school, as our YLHS YES! campaign for Shapell Homes turned back opponents.

Here’s a review of the basic process under state law (municipalities may alter this process by ordinance, so be sure to check):

  • Proponents have 30 days from approval of the ordinance to circulate a petition calling for repeal.
  • There is no title and summary or publication requirement.  Proponents may commence circulating the petition as soon as the ordinance is adopted.
  • The referendum must contain the full text of the ordinance or legislative act the proponents are challenging.
  • Proponents must gather signatures from not less than 10 percent of the registered voters in the city according to the last report of registration.
  • Any voter who has signed a petition may withdraw his or her signature by filing a written request with the elections officer at least one day before the petition is filed.
  • The ordinance that is subject of a referendum is automatically suspended once the referendum petition qualifies [NOTE – this stops any activity on your property related to the approvals you just received].
  • Once the city election official certifies the referendum has the requisite number of signatures, Council must either repeal the ordinance, or place the measure on the next regular municipal election, or call a special election to consider the ordinance.
  • If a special election is called, it must be held no later than 88 days from the date the election is called.
  • The City attorney prepares an impartial summary and the proponents and opponents prepare arguments for and against the referendum (and rebuttals) for the ballot statement.

A good reference:  California elections code section 9235-9242.  If you’re facing a referendum, or feel your project may face one upon Council approval, give us a call so we can talk strategy.

The Nuttiest of NIMBYs

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse for NIMBYs – the Not-In-My-Back-Yard activists who have plummeted in decision-makers’ perception from noble protectors of neighborhoods to crybabies wanting to win a big jackpot for their “hardship” – we came across this:

In their lawsuit, the homeowners say the project, which involves mixing soil and cement deep underground along the levee line, will be disruptive and could damage their homes and yards. They’re also concerned about noise from equipment that could approach 90 decibels, about as loud as a motorcycle.

Sounds like a run-of-the-mill NIMBY complaint, right?  But wait … these aren’t just any NIMBYs.  These are the folks who live along the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans – yes, that canal, the one famous for failing during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading to the destruction of entire neighborhoods.  And this is just the latest skirmish in a simmering battle between homeowners and the government that has spawned lawsuits, appeals and multiple court rulings.

The canal, by the way, was built about 100 years ago, long before any of these folks purchased homes alongside it.  At that time, they apparently thought it was a fine thing to have water cruising by their back yards at the level of their roofs.  But let’s not let that get in the way of them upping the decibel level of their whining.

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