La Mirada v. Los Angeles

Court of Appeals of California, Second District, Division Eight, No. B259672, September 9, 2015: Building and occupancy permits void after demolition in excess of permit.

In this mandamus action, demolition, building and occupancy permits issued by the City of Los Angeles were declared void because the entire structure was demolished, contrary to previously issued permits which required preservation of the façade. The city was ordered to re-do the permit process, going back to consideration of revised demolition plans.

The building which was demolished, the so-called 1924 Old Spaghetti Factory (OSF) building, was not designated a historic landmark at the national, state, or local levels but the original project plans recognized that the building had historical value. The plans which the original developer submitted for project permits and variances would preserve the façade of the OSF building and incorporate it into the project. Although the project permits and variances were issued before the recession hit in 2008, the project halted before demolition. It was revived by a new developer in 2011. That developer obtained a City demolition permit to demolish the entire building, including the façade, as recommended or justified by advice from the new developer’s engineer and architect. Thereafter, the whole building was demolished, the City issued a building permit, the developer completed the project, and the City issued occupancy permits.

La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association of Hollywood (La Mirada), a group of residents and residential property owners in the City of Los Angeles who advocate for residential quality of life issues in Hollywood, had unsuccessfully challenged the project permits and variances. They now challenged the issuance of the demolition, building and occupancy permits.  After exhausting administrative remedies, La Mirada sought a court order to void all those permits. The trial court largely granted La Mirada’s petition, and this appellate court affirmed the trial court.

One of the pre-demolition project permits was the City’s adopting a zone change ordinance which included a condition (“Q Condition 7″) that, “The use and development of the property shall be in substantial conformance with the plot plan submitted with the application.” That plot plan included demolition preserving the façade. Four or more years later, after the city approved the total demolition permit, when the City approved the building and occupancy permits, the City determined that its issuance of the total demolition permit was in error but despite the total demolition the project substantially conformed to the plot plan.

As a threshold matter, the City and the Developer argued that La Mirada’s claims were moot because the project was complete and the City had already required the developer to seek revisions of the relevant project approvals. The court rejected that, saying a ruling on the petition “has an important practical impact. … The voiding of these certificates and a stay on further ones pending reapproval is not a meaningless act with no practical impact. The residential building and park cannot be occupied without valid certificates of occupancy.”

The central issue was then whether the City abused its discretion in determining that the demolition permit was void but the building permits were validly issued. The court said the appropriate standard is California Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.5, subdivision (b), which “defines ‘abuse of discretion’ to include instances in which the administrative agency ‘has not proceeded in the manner required by law, the order or decision is not supported by the findings, or the findings are not supported by the evidence.’” Under that standard, the court found the City had abused its discretion because after the city zoning administrator ruled the full demolition permit did not comply with Q Condition 7, the zoning administrator determined that the later-issued building permits did substantially conform to Q Condition 7. This, the court said, is where the City’s action “does not proceed in the manner required by law” and so constitutes an abuse of discretion: the City had no discretion to issue permits that violated Q Condition 7 and the zone change ordinance.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the trial court judgment (1) directing the City to void all permits previously granted, including but not limited to demolition and building permits and certificates of occupancy, and (2) directing the City to prepare and process subsequent environmental review before permitting any more changes to the project. The court also awarded costs on appeal to La Mirada.

(Editorial note: while it seems likely the City will accept revised plans to demolish the façade, and therefore re-approve the building and occupancy permits, that may not be the end of the litigation if the rationale for the project permits and variances relied on the preservation of the façade as the basis for allowing those permits.)

Decision available at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/nonpub/B259672.PDF until Nov. 9, 2015, then at the California appellate courts’ Case Information Search.

The opinion in this case has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of California Rules of Court rule 8.1115, which prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b).

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