Opponent of Small Lots in Norco Threatens to Take Case to Higher Court

Times Staff Writer

Former Councilman Louis deBottari, whose bid to force a referendum on small-lot zoning has twice been rejected by the courts, said he will soon ask the California Supreme Court to hear his case against the City Council.

Last week, deBottari lost another round in his battle to let Norco voters decide whether homes should be allowed on 10,000-square-foot lots when the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s ruling--and the City Council’s position--that the zoning question could not be put to a citywide vote.

Norco traditionally has required homes to be on lots of at least 20,000 square feet, or slightly less than half an acre, in keeping with the city’s fiercely defended “rural character.”

52-Acre Tract

In June, 1984, the City Council rezoned 52 acres of northern Norco, then owned by Howard Hanzlik, changing its designation from single-family residential on 18,000-square-foot lots to allow the homes on smaller lots, averaging about 10,000 square feet.

Neither zoning plan allowed the keeping of horses or other farm animals, a practice characteristic of most parts of the city, said Ralph (Bud) Plender, Norco’s director of community development.


The zoning change was immediately followed by a petition drive to put the matter to a citywide vote. The council refused to honor the petitions, however, saying a vote to overturn the zoning would put the city in violation of state law.

Officials explained that reversal of the council’s action would cause the area to revert to its previous zoning. As a result, the old zoning would then be inconsistent with the city’s land-use plan, which the council had changed the same night.

Differing Views

Such an inconsistency would violate state law, which requires zoning to conform to the city’s general plan, said City Atty. Barry Brandt, who has likened the petition drive effort to “putting the zoning cart before the general plan horse.”

DeBottari and his supporters--including current City Councilman Ron Wildfong--have said that focusing on that technicality is simply a way to duck what they see as the real issue: preserving the voters’ constitutional right to express their will by referendum.

When the issue came before a three-judge appellate court panel, Brandt argued that citizens have the right to challenge zoning decisions but must first change the city’s general plan.

Justices Robert E. Rickles, Margaret J. Morris and Marcus Kaufman agreed, ruling unanimously in favor of the city and co-defendant Hanzlik. The justices also ordered the case published, which means it may be used as a precedent in deciding future cases.

Newport Beach Developer

“As a practical matter, I think this ends the lawsuit; this will be the final decision,” Brandt said in an interview Friday. “You can petition the Supreme Court, but they take a very small percentage of the cases they are asked to hear.”

Hanzlik, although he remained involved in the lawsuit, sold the land earlier this year to Deane Financial Inc., a Newport Beach-based developer. A contractor already has begun clearing and grading land for about 99 homes on part of the property.

“The whole case, to us, was a case of political harassment,” Hanzlik said. “We were pleased, but not surprised, by the appeals court decision.”

Opponents of small-lot development in Norco believe it will lead to more small-lot housing tracts, which could eventually push animal-keeping out of the city, a prospect likely to spark opposition among many of the city’s 22,252 residents.

Norco residents are fiercely protective of the city’s rural character, in the face of suburbanization on all sides: Orange County and Corona to the southwest, Ontario and Pomona to the northwest, and Riverside and San Bernardino to the east.

However, Hanzlik has maintained throughout the controversy that his former property marks the end, rather than the beginning, of suburban-style housing in Norco.

“DeBottari and his group made a political issue out of it . . . by making people think they would lose their horses to small lots,” he said.

‘People Didn’t Understand’

“They made a tremendous political issue out of something that people didn’t understand,” he said. Many Norco residents who signed the petitions calling for a referendum “thought we were taking horse lots and making smaller lots out of them, (when) all that we did was reduce the lot size to 10,000 square feet, the same as the subdivision next to it.

“That made sense to the city,” Hanzlik said, “because the land was so isolated from the already developed horse ranches. . . . All the remaining (residential) land in Norco is under the general plan calling for half-acre horse lots.”

But deBottari said that problems will arise whenever Norco annexes adjoining, unincorporated areas of Riverside County. Owners of those lands--now populated mostly by dairy cows--will see Deane Financial’s development as a precedent to increase their potential profits by building more homes on smaller parcels, he explained.