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Walnut Acres Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeless

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Eighth Division

March 18, 2015

WALNUT ACRES NEIGHBORHOOD ASSOCIATION et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents,
v.
CITY OF LOS ANGELES et al., Defendants; JOHN C. SIMMERS et al., Real Parties in Interest and Appellants.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BS139318 Luis A. Lavin, Judge.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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COUNSEL

Alston & Bird, Edward J. Casey and Andrea S. Warren for Real Parties in Interest and Appellants.

Law Offices of Mark Shipow and Mark S. Shipow for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

OPINION

FLIER, J.

“Unnecessary hardship” is a term of art generally used in the context of evaluating a zoning variance. For example, under the Los Angeles Municipal Code, no variance may be granted unless “‘the strict application of the provisions of the zoning ordinance would result in practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships inconsistent with the general purposes and intent of the zoning regulations.’” (West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Los Angeles (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 1506, 1514, fn. 4 [130 Cal.Rptr.3d 360].) Although the test includes both “practical difficulties” and “unnecessary hardships, ” the focus should be on “unnecessary hardships” and not “practical difficulties, ” which is a lesser standard. (Stolman v. City of Los Angeles (2003) 114 Cal.App.4th 916, 925 [8 Cal.Rptr.3d 178]; Zakessian v. City of Sausalito (1972) 28 Cal.App.3d 794, 799 [105 Cal.Rptr. 105].)

Just as with variances, Los Angeles Municipal Code section 14.3.1, which governs the permitting process for eldercare facilities, provides that approval of the eldercare facility is warranted only if the zoning administrator finds “that the strict application of the land use regulations on the subject property

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would result in practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships inconsistent with the general purpose and intent of the zoning regulations.” (§ 14.3.1(E).)[1]

In this case, the zoning administrator for the City of Los Angeles (City) approved a permit for an eldercare facility that exceeded the building square footage and number of guest rooms allowed under zoning regulations. Nearby residents challenged the facility arguing that the zoning administrator failed to make all of the necessary findings, including a finding of “unnecessary hardship.” The trial court found no substantial evidence supported the finding of “unnecessary hardship.”

After review, we agree with the trial court that the zoning administrator’s determination that the strict application of the land use regulations to the proposed eldercare facility would result in “unnecessary hardship” was not supported by substantial evidence. Although the developer argued the unnecessary hardship was based on its purported lost “economy of scale, ” no evidence supported that claim. The record contained no evidence that following the zoning regulations and building a less dense facility would cause either financial hardship or unnecessary hardship. We therefore affirm the trial court’s judgment requiring the City to rescind its approval of the proposed eldercare facility.

FACTS AND PROCEDURE

1. Section 14.3.1

Prior to the enactment of section 14.3.1, developers seeking to build an eldercare facility were required to obtain several zoning permits and/or variances for each proposed development.[2] The Los Angeles City Planning Department in a 2003 report recommended the City adopt the ordinance eventually codified in section 14.3.1, explaining: “The growing number of senior citizens in Southern California is more active than previous generations and they are demanding a wide variety of housing types and services. Those who need special living environments and services find that there is an inadequate supply of these housing types in the state. Although, the development community is meeting these demands by providing different types of

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housing, government can assist by assuring the efficient delivery of these developments and a streamlining of their applications. [¶] This proposed ordinance... would enable the City of Los Angeles to expedite the review process for these much-needed Eldercare Facilities.” The city attorney reviewing the draft ordinance described it as follows: “This draft ordinance would amend the Los Angeles Municipal Code to add definitions for new and previously undefined uses, provide development standards for Alzheimer’s/Dementia Care Housing, Assisted Living Care Housing, Senior Independent Housing and Skilled Nursing Care Housing, create a single approval process for these uses and facilitate the processing of applications of Eldercare Facilities.”

In 2006, the Los Angeles City Council (City Council) passed ordinance No. 178,063, codified as section 14.3.1. As stated in the ordinance, section 14.3.1’s purpose is to “provide development standards for Alzheimer’s/Dementia Care Housing, Assisted Living Care Housing, Senior Independent Housing and Skilled Nursing Care Housing, create a single process for approvals and facilitate the processing of application of Eldercare Facilities. These facilities provide much needed services and housing for the growing senior population of the City of Los Angeles.” (§ 14.3.1, subd. A.)

Pursuant to section 14.3.1, subdivision E, to approve an eldercare facility, the zoning administrator is required to make several findings. As previously noted, “The Zoning Administrator shall not grant the approval unless he or she finds that the strict application of the land use regulations on the subject property would result in practical difficulties or unnecessary hardships inconsistent with the general purpose and intent of the zoning regulations.” The zoning administrator also is required to find compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, an absence of adverse impacts on street access in the surrounding neighborhood, a scale compatible with the surrounding neighborhood, as well as compatibility between the project and the general plan. (§ 14.3.1, subdivision E.l, 3-5.) Finally, the zoning administrator is required to find “that the project shall provide services to the elderly such as housing, medical services, social services, or long term care to meet citywide demand.” (§ 14.3.1, subd. E.2.)

2. The Parties and Proposed Project

The owners of the property, John C. and Thomas Simmers and the developer Community MultiHousing, Inc., sought a permit under section 14.3.1 to build an eldercare facility at 6221 North Fallbrook Avenue in Woodland Hills. They are collectively referred to as appellants.

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With limited exceptions, owners of neighboring single family residences strongly opposed the development of the eldercare facility in their neighborhood. Their neighborhood association—Walnut Acres Neighborhood Association—and some individual residents Mohammad Tat, Jack Pomakian, Dawn Stead, and Donna ...


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