Wednesday, September 7, 2011
C.A. Overturns City’s Grant of Use Permit to Synagogue
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district has overturned a decision by the city of Los Angeles to grant a conditional use permit and parking variance for a synagogue in a residential section of Van Nuys.
Div. Four, in an Aug. 16 decision ordered published yesterday, said the Los Angeles City Council did not comply with the relevant provisions of the City Charter and Municipal Code in granting permission for Chabad of the Valley Inc. and Chabad of North Hollywood to expand their facility on West Chandler Boulevard.
Chabad has operated a synagogue since 1981 in a 1,500 square foot one‑story building at 13079 West Chandler Boulevard which provides seven parking spaces.
When the synagogue first opened, it had a congregation of about 45 people, and it had grown to a congregation of about 200 people by 2007 when it applied for permission to build a 16,100 square foot three-story building to replace the existing structure on Chandler Boulevard. Chabad also requested a variance to allow a building height of 45 feet instead of 36 feet and a parking variance to allow five parking spaces instead of the 83 spaces that would have been required based on the size of the of proposed 3,654 square foot assembly space.
A city zoning administrator subsequently granted approval for the construction, but limited the size of the facility to 10,300 square feet and required a minimum of 40 percent of the square footage to be in a basement level.
She also restricted the assembly space to 2,400 square feet, and based on this reduced assembly space, approved a parking variance to provide five parking spaces instead of the 68 required for an assembly space of that size.
The administrator further denied a variance to permit a building height over 33 feet, and restricted the facility’s hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Both the West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association and Chabad appealed the administrator’s decision to the South Valley Area Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission later found Chabad’s proposed project was too large for the 9,568 square-foot lot, would be materially detrimental to the character of the neighborhood, and would not be in harmony with the city’s General Plan.
On June 16, 2009, the Los Angeles City Council voted to assert jurisdiction over the Planning Commission’s decision and scheduled a hearing for June 19.
At the City Council hearing, after the public comment portion was closed, then-Councilmember Jack Weiss set forth a compromise proposal he had developed with Chabad, which would allow it to build a 12,000 square foot building, standing 28 feet high, with 20 percent of the building in the basement, five parking spaces, and a 3,370 square-foot assembly space.
Although the City Council members asked a few questions of the Chabad representative, there was no opportunity at the hearing for the West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association to address this proposal before the council voted to approve it.
The West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association then unsuccessfully petitioned for a writ of mandate with the Los Angeles Superior Court seeking to overturn the City Council’s decision.
Writing for the appellate court, Justice Thomas L. Willhite Jr. explained that the City Council, by taking jurisdiction over the Planning Commission’s decision, had the same authority to act as that originally held by the Planning Commission, pursuant to the City Charter.
Under the Municipal Code, the jurist said, the council was required to make its decision regarding the requested variance based “only on the evidence and findings of the Zoning Administrator and to modify the Zoning Administrator’s decision only by setting forth specifically the manner in which the Zoning Administrator erred.”
Wilhite noted that the council “specifically stated at the hearing that it was overturning the Zoning Administrator’s action in granting Chabad’s appeal, yet it failed to make the findings required under the Municipal Code in doing so.”
Even if implicit findings of error could suffice, Wilhite emphasized that “here the City Council made no findings of error by the Zoning Administrator, either explicit or implicit” and “did not even mention the Zoning Administrator’s findings in its decision.”
Based on Topanga Assn. for a Scenic Community v. County of Los Angeles (1974) 11 Cal.3d 506 and its progeny, Wilhite said, the City Council was also required to show “ ‘the analytic route between the raw evidence and the ultimate decision.’ ”
He concluded that the City Council, by approving a proposal which was “materially different from that addressed by the Zoning Administrator,” necessarily “acted on evidence not in the record before the Zoning Administrator and acted without any reference to the Zoning Administrator’s findings.”
Wilhite said the council’s “conclusory findings did not show how the City Council traveled from evidence to action nor indicate how the Zoning Administrator erred or abused her discretion” and so the trial court’s decision denying the petition for administrative mandamus had to be reversed.
On remand, Wilhite, joined by Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein and Justice Nora M. Manella, directed the City County to comply with the requirements of the Municipal Code and Topanga in reviewing the Zoning Administrator’s decisions.
Marina Del Rey attorney Noel Weiss—of no relation to Jack Weiss, who he ran against in the city attorney primary in 2009—and Mark S. Shipow of West Hills represented the West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association.
Deputy City Attorneys Timothy McWilliams and Tayo A. Popoola represented Los Angeles while Benjamin M. Reznik of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell represented Chabad of the Valley Inc. and Chabad of North Hollywood.
The case is West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeles (Chabad of the Valley, Inc.), B226663.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company