News and Articles

September 12, 2011

Court of Appeal Overturns Use Permit and Variance for Synagogue Expansion Due to City’s Failure to Comply with City Charter and Topanga Findings Requirements

Court of Appeal Overturns Use Permit and Variance for Synagogue Expansion Due to City’s Failure to Comply with City Charter and Topanga Findings Requirements

West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association v. City of Los Angeles [Nos. B226663, B229418; filed 8/16/11, ordered published 9/6/11]

By Andrea A. Matarazzo

The Second District Court of Appeal overturned a decision by the City of Los Angeles granting a conditional use permit and parking variance for a synagogue in a residential section of Van Nuys.  In reversing the trial court’s decision, the Court of Appeal 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 in this location since 1981, in a 1,500 square-foot, one‑story building that 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 to the City for permission to build a 16,100 square-foot, three-story building to replace the existing structure.  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 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.  The administrator 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’s decision denied a variance to allow 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 Zoning Administrator’s decision to the South Valley Area Planning Commission, which found that the 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.


The Los Angeles City Council voted to call up the Planning Commission’s decision and scheduled a hearing.  At the City Council hearing, after the public comment portion was closed, an individual council member set forth a compromise proposal he had developed with Chabad that would allow the applicant 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 other 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 City Council voted to approve it.


The West Chandler Boulevard Neighborhood Association challenged the City’s decision, filing a petition for a writ of mandate under Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5.  The trial court denied the petition, and the Court of Appeal reversed.  The appellate court 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 City 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.”


The court noted that the City 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, the court 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, the court explained, the City Council was also required to show “‘the analytic route between the raw evidence and the ultimate decision.’”  The court concluded that the City Council, by approving a proposal that 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.”  The City’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.”  The appellate court ordered remand to the City Council with direction to comply with the requirements of the Municipal Code and Topanga in reviewing the Zoning Administrator’s decisions.


By Andrea Matarazzo


Andrea advises and advocates for private and public clients in all aspects of project permitting and entitlements, environmental compliance, and litigation, particularly regarding environmental review under CEQA and NEPA, land use and zoning issues, air quality regulation, climate change law and policy, water supply and water quality mandates, state and federal endangered species laws, wetlands permitting, and other regulatory requirements.


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