Supreme Court Review Asked of Zoning Issue : Ex-Councilman Claims That Norco Improperly Rejected Referendum for Small-Lot Decision

Times Staff Writer

Former Councilman Louis deBottari asked the California Supreme Court Wednesday to hear his arguments that the Norco City Council improperly rejected petitions for a citywide referendum on small-lot zoning.

Although his bid to put the zoning question to the voters has been rejected twice by lower courts, deBottari believes the state's highest court will agree to hear his arguments because the case affects the constitutional right to challenge City Council decisions by referendum.

"I think this is fundamental and basic to the people of California," deBottari said in an interview Wednesday. Last month's appellate court decision in favor of the City Council, he said, "has put a serious crimp in the right to referendum."

Rezoning of 52 Acres

DeBottari's lawsuit against the Norco City Council stems from the June, 1984, rezoning of 52 acres in northern Norco. The City Council changed the area's designation to allow single-family homes on lots averaging about 10,000 square feet, instead of the 18,000 square feet previously required.

Neither the new nor the old zoning plan allowed the keeping of horses or other farm animals, a practice characteristic of most parts of the city, according to 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 the petitions, however, saying a vote to overturn the zoning decision would put the city in violation of state law.

Reversal of the council's action would cause the area to revert to its previous zoning, which would then be inconsistent with the city's general land-use plan, which the council had changed the same night.

That inconsistency would violate state law, which requires zoning to conform to the city's general plan, according to City Atty. Barry Brandt, who has likened the petition-drive effort to "putting the zoning cart before the general-plan horse."

Citizens have the right to challenge zoning decisions, but they first must change the city's general plan, Brandt argued in the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Bernardino.

In a unanimous decision issued Sept. 6, a three-judge panel agreed, ruling in favor of the city. The justices also ordered the case published, which means it may be used as a precedent in deciding future cases.

Opposing Argument

"The appellate court hung their hat on the fact that this referendum would enact an illegal ordinance, and the bottom line is that a referendum doesn't enact or adopt any ordinance," deBottari said.

"The voters can only enact or adopt an ordinance by (the) initiative process. The referendum is only a signal to the City Council that the people did not agree with the legislative act."

The Supreme Court, which agrees to hear only a small percentage of the cases it is asked to consider, is expected to inform deBottari within about two months whether it will accept his case for review.

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