By Brian Russell

Walnut Acres Neighborhood Assn. v. City of Los Angeles (2015) 235 Cal.App.4th 1303

The owners of the property and the developer Community MultiHousing, Inc. sought a permit under Los Angeles City code section 14.3.1 to build an eldercare facility at 6221 North Fallbrook Avenue in Woodland Hills. 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.) The proposed eldercare facility exceeded the maximum allowable density and floor area of the residential zone. Zoning regulations limited a structure to 12,600 square feet, and the proposed facility would contain 50,289 square feet, including over 20,000 square feet devoted to common areas. The proposed facility would have 60 guest rooms and 76 guest beds. Application of the zoning regulations would have limited the site to 16 guest rooms. Pursuant to section 14.3.1, subdivision E, to approve an eldercare facility, the zoning administrator is required to make several findings. “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.”

On May 2, 2012, the zoning administrator approved the project.

The South Valley Planning Commission reversed and concluded that the facility was not appropriate for the neighborhood. Then the city council asserted jurisdiction and voted to send the proposal for the eldercare facility to the city’s planning and land use management committee, that committee recommended that the city council should adopt the zoning administrator’s decision. The council voted with the committee’s recommendation, overturned the planning commission decision, and approved the project.

The neighbors petitioned for a writ of mandate in the superior court. The court issued a judgment ordering the city to set aside its decision granting the developer a permit to construct the eldercare facility. The developer then appealed.

The appellate court reviewed the zoning administrator’s rationale for approval of the project. In their deliberations the zoning administrator stated, “The strict application of the zoning regulations to the proposed elder care facility, a unique use relative to other uses generally permitted by-right in the RA Zone, would limit the site’s ability to provide needed on-site amenities and support services to the detriment of the project’s occupants or would limit the site to only 16 guest rooms, which would result in significant underutilization of the site and would not permit the operator to achieve the economy of scale required to provide the level of on-site support services and amenities required for the eldercare facility’s unique population. Denial of the request would therefore preclude the provision of much needed housing for the elderly population.”

The appeals court determined the zoning administrator’s rationale was not supported by substantial evidence. In the zoning administrator’s review there was no substantial evidence of an unnecessary hardship. There was no evidence that a facility with 16 rooms could not be profitable. Eldercare homes apparently include small homes with four to 10 beds, according to the zoning administrator’s report. There was no evidence that necessary support services demanded additional rooms in order to generate a profit. Just as in Stolman v. City of Los Angeles (2003) 114 Cal.App.4th 916 at page 926 there was no "information from which it [could] be determined whether the profit [was] so low as to amount to ‘unnecessary hardship."

The court did not dwell on appellants’ argument that a reviewing court must give substantial deference to city planners or city staff because neither city planners nor city staff concluded 16 rooms would pose an unnecessary hardship or any hardship at all. No report presented either by appellants or by city staff documented the consequence of limiting the development to 16 rooms. Therefore, the developer’s appeal was rejected.

Brian Russell is an associate at Abbott & Kindermann, LLP.  For questions relating to this article or any other California land use, real estate, environmental and/or planning issues contact Abbott & Kindermann, LLP at (916) 456-9595.

The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice by Abbott & Kindermann, LLP, or the formation of a lawyer/client relationship. Because of the changing nature of this area of the law and the importance of individual facts, readers are encouraged to seek independent counsel for advice regarding their individual legal issues.