Friday, September 15, 2006
S.C. to Decide Whether Long-Running Code Violations Justify Forced Demolition of Santa Monica Residence
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether a Los Angeles Superior Court judge exceeded her authority by ordering demolition of a Santa Monica residence whose owner has a 15-year history of violating local codes.
The justices Wednesday unanimously agreed to stay various orders made by Judge Lisa Hart Cole ultimately authorizing the destruction of a decrepit three-unit residential property in Santa Monica and the sale of the land by a receiver, and to review a May 31 Court of Appeal decision that affirmed the orders.
Owner Guillermo Gonzales occupied the property at 2438 Ocean Park Blvd. with his family and, according to the city, an unknown number of tenants paying to stay in a single bedroom crammed with 14 bunk beds. The property had been the site of chronic criminal activity and a host of long-standing code violations, such as accumulation of combustible debris and rubbish on the property and inoperable and unregistered vehicles parked in the backyard, the judge found.
The city first took action on Gonzales’ property in 1989 through a civil nuisance lawsuit charging violations of building, fire, mechanical, plumbing and electrical codes. After obtaining a lien on his property, the city in 1997 again found Gonzales in violation and filed an 85-count misdemeanor criminal complaint against him.
Gonzales pled guilty to 15 counts but failed to cure the violations as ordered, resulting in a 280-day jail stay.
Following a second 32-count misdemeanor criminal complaint in 2001 for persistent code violations, the city obtained authorization to enter the property and abate the violations if necessary. The court placed Gonzales on probation until April 2005 and ruled that any violations remaining uncorrected after 30 days would be deemed a public nuisance.
In November 2004, the court found Gonzales violated probation and granted the city’s petition for a temporary restraining order. At a January 2005 hearing where Gonzales appeared without his attorney, the court granted the city’s petition for the appointment of a receiver, telling Gonzales that it was “a little late” for him to oppose the petition but he and his counsel could file a motion for reconsideration within 10 days.
The judge later denied Gonzales’ motion for reconsideration and granted the receiver’s April 2005 application for an order authorizing demolition of the property, rejecting Gonzales’ “fervent wish” that he be permitted to stay on the property with his family.
In appealing the order appointing a receiver and the subsequent orders denying reconsideration, declining to stay the receivership appointment, and authorizing the receiver’s demolition of the property, Gonzales contended that the appointment order was void because the court failed to continue the hearing so that he could obtain the assistance of counsel. He also argued that the court abused its discretion in granting the receiver’s demolition petition.
Rejecting Gonzales’ continuance argument on the grounds that he never provided good cause for continuance, the appellate panel held that Hart’s grant of the demolition petition was not an abuse of discretion.
Presiding Justice Vaino Spencer, writing for the panel, said that because demolition and sale of the property would result in $150,000 more in equity than rehabilitation would, choosing the former was “a more reasonable course of action under the circumstances.”
Spencer noted that if Gonzales had wanted to continue occupying the property with his family, he could have chosen to correct the code violations during the 15 years that the city proceeded against him.
“[H]e chose jail over correcting the conditions on his property,” the justice said. “If he placed so little value on correcting the conditions on the property in order to continue living there, the trial court cannot be faulted for doing the same.”
Justice Miriam A. Vogel joined in the opinion.
Justice Robert M. Mallano concurred in part but dissented with regard to the demolition order. In light of Gonzales’ inalienable property right, Mallano said, the order was “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.”
“[I]t is [Gonzales’] decision to forgo the $150,000 and keep his property. Only his financial interests are involved, not the city’s nor the courts’,” the justice wrote, explaining that rehabilitation of the property would have been sufficient to satisfy the law and the city.
The case is City of Santa Monica v. Gonzales, B182104.
In other conference action, the justices denied review of the Third District Court of Appeal ruling in +Hess Collection Winery v. California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Fresh Fruit and Vegetables Workers Local 1096),+ C045405.
That decision upheld the constitutionality of state laws allowing a private mediator to set binding terms to an initial agricultural collective bargaining agreement when the parties cannot reach an agreement.
“The Legislature regards agriculture to be the state’s most vital industry,” Justice Richard Sims III wrote for a divided panel. “It can certainly act to protect that industry by promoting stability in agricultural employment.”
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company