PEOPLE POWER--The Los Angeles Superior Court ruled the City of Los Angeles violated the rights of LA residents by denying their right to due process in a dispute over the City's Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. The court also ruled the City ordinance governing appeals of subdivision tract maps is preempted by state law, which guarantees an aggrieved third-party’s right to be heard by the City Council. The case, Saunders et al., v. City of Los Angeles, et al., (L.A.S.C., Case No. BS154147), Notice of Entry of Judgment is attached.
The lawsuit against the city was brought by the La Brea-Willoughby Coalition (“Coalition”), a group of community activists who reside in the Hollywood enclave referred to as La Brea-Willoughby. The court ruled the Coalition was denied the right to due process when the City twice refused to allow an appeal of an approved small lot subdivision project.
The case arose from the Coalition's appeal of a small lot subdivision that had been approved by the City's Planning Department in the La Brea-Willoughby neighborhood – an area that consists of historical one and two-story affordable single family homes and garden apartments on regular sized lots. The developer of the subdivision, Jacob Cohen, purchased one of these garden apartment buildings regulated under Los Angeles' rent stabilization ordinance. He then proceeded to evict all the tenants. Cohen applied to the City Planning Department to subdivide the parcel into five separate small lots, pursuant to the City's Small Lot Subdivision Ordinance. The City's Planning Department approved the developer's application in violation of zoning and planning laws.
The Coalition challenged the developer's proposed project, but the Planning Department approved it anyway. The Coalition then complied with all filing requirements, filing an appeal to the Central Area Planning Commission (CPC). As the matter was not scheduled with the CPC, that appeal was summarily denied without a hearing or decision by the Commission itself. The City’s reason for denying the Coalition's appeal? A provision of the Los Angeles Municipal Code which allows the Planning Commission to deny the Coalition's appeal outright if the Commission did not hold a hearing on the matter within thirty days.
The Coalition then appealed to the City Council. Again, the Coalition complied with the City’s appeal requirements. And again, the City summarily denied the appeal without the City Council ever hearing or considering it. The reasoning: the City Planning Department staff failed to transmit the appeal to the City Council for a hearing within thirty days.
Frustrated and dismayed, the Coalition retained Venskus and Associates, an environmental advocacy law firm, to file an action in Los Angeles Superior Court to challenge the City's denials of the appeals.
After considerable briefing and a bench trial, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the City of Los Angeles violated the members’ right to due process because the City's Planning Commission and then the City Council failed to consider the appeals and instead, summarily denied them without a hearing. The Court also held that Los Angeles Municipal Code sections 17.06(A)(4) and (A)(5), which the City used to justify the denial of appeals, unlawfully conflicted with the California state Subdivision Map Act.
Under the Court's ruling, the Planning Commission and City Council must now hear and consider community members’ timely appeals of subdivision development approvals.
We heard of other community advocates' appeals being denied by the City for similar reasons, so we knew we had to take this opportunity to challenge this despicable behavior by the City in court. Attorney Venskus explained, "We are very pleased that because of this judgment, the City is now stopped from violating others' due process rights to have their subdivision approval appeals heard by the Planning Commission and City Council."
(Lucille Saunders is President of the LaBrea-Willoughby Coalition community advocacy association and a longtime activist involved in neighborhood and city issues. She welcomes questions and comments at email@example.com.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.