Apartment owners intent on forcing the West Hollywood City Council to prepare an environmental impact report on the effects of the proposed rent control law say they might file suit if the city refuses to go ahead with a study.
"We've certainly talked about it," landlords' leader Grafton Tanquary said after being asked by City Councilman John Heilman if apartment owners planned to sue.
Tanquary said landlords were not trying to use the environmental issue to delay the rent law, but wanted a study to ensure that the council understands the results of the law it is proposing.
"We're not trying to kill or postpone . . . this ordinance," Tanquary told Heilman during a recent public hearing on the proposed rent ordinance. "However, we will do whatever we can to force you (to conduct the study)."
If the council decided to carry out a study, it could adopt the rent law as a permanent measure only after the study was completed. The law could be approved as a temporary ordinance while the study was being conducted.
Heilman, however, said he had heard no talk among council member or city officials of approving the rent law as a temporary measure. "As far as I know, we're going to adopt it as a permanent ordinance," he said. The rent law is expected to be voted on and adopted as an urgency measure Thursday.
Landlords raised the environmental issue after concluding that the City Council had not adequately researched the impact of the planned rent control law.
On May 6, the council adopted a negative declaration, a brief legal document assuring that there will be no negative environmental impact. It sometimes takes the place of a full environmental study if a legislative body believes a full study is not warranted.
Apartment owners claim that the negative declaration does not go far enough in putting to rest environmental concerns, but council members and city lawyers say the declaration provides more than ample environmental assurances.
"It was our opinion, and the opinion of the city attorney, that an environmental study wasn't needed," said Heilman, who is an attorney. "We decided to submit a negative declaration only because we were overly cautious. We think a negative declaration is more than adequate."
During a June 13 public hearing, landlords presented testimony by several university professors to buttress their call for an environmental study. Werner Hirsch, an economics professor at UCLA, suggested that the rent law would have an adverse environmental impact and likened it to a "disaster movie in slow motion."
And Stephen L. Jones, an attorney who has represented landlords in Santa Monica, said the mere fact that a dispute exists over the rent law's environmental impact compels that a study be conducted.
"If there is a dispute, as a matter of law, you must prepare an environmental impact report and not adopt a negative declaration," said Jones, who also recently represented a West Hollywood landlady in the first lawsuit against the city's temporary rent freeze. (A Superior Court judge ruled against the woman, but agreed to let her amend her lawsuit and present it later if she found no other remedy.)
Before the hearing, Jones also pointed out that the Los Angeles City Council, heeding the advice of its city attorneys, ordered an environmental impact study before it adopted its permanent rent control law.
But Rochelle Brown, West Hollywood's assistant city attorney, disagreed with Jones, saying that "a difference of opinion or political philosophies does not constitute an environmental dispute, but a political dispute." She said that there must be "substantial evidence of environmental impacts," adding that she saw no such evidence.
She also said that the California Environmental Quality Act of 1980, which covers the uses of environmental impact studies, "does not even apply to rent control laws."
Heilman said he came away from the June 13 hearing with "the impression that they're (landlords) planning to sue." He likened that effort to a similar attempt last summer by anti-cityhood groups to use a lawsuit to thwart West Hollywood's incorporation drive. The anti-cityhood lawsuit, which was partially based on the lack of an environmental study and--ironically--also involved Stephen Jones, was denied by a county Superior Court judge.
"They won't do any better this time," Heilman said. "They're grasping at straws."
After the June 13 hearing, Heilman and council member Helen Albert tried to persuade the council to change a previous decision that would allow landlords to raise rents after apartment vacancies once every two years.
Heilman and Albert moved to increase the limit on vacancy rent increases to once every five years, but Mayor Valerie Terrigno and council members Steve Schulte and Alan Viterbi voted against the change.