Ruling in Zoning Case a Setback for Hermosa Schools

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Times Staff Writer

The Hermosa Beach City School District was dealt a severe setback this week in its 1 1/2-year-old lawsuit against the city when a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that voters have the right to maintain control over the zoning of the district’s properties.

The district sued the city in December, 1986, after voters overwhelmingly decided the previous month to prohibit the city from rezoning 15 areas designated as open space in the city’s General Plan--including portions of five properties owned by the district--without voter approval.

District’s Claim

The district contended that the initiative--known as Proposition O--conflicts with a state law that allows unused school sites to be developed to the same extent as adjacent properties unless the sites have been leased or purchased for park or recreational purposes. The district also claimed in its lawsuit that the law requires cities, at the district’s request, to rezone school land to uses compatible with surrounding properties.


Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Dzintra I. Janavs disagreed. In denying the district’s request for a summary judgment, she ruled that the state law “does not prohibit plan amendments--only certain rezonings. Amendments to plans are subject to people’s rights of initiative and referendum.” In this case, the amendment to the General Plan was the requirement that voters approve zoning changes for the 15 sites.

The judge noted that the 1986 initiative “did not change the zoning or General Plan designations which have been in effect since 1975,” but only the procedures for getting the changes.

Janavs wrote in her ruling: “Initiative and referendum, besides the right to vote itself, are the most democratic processes of our governmental system. The sovereign ultimately is ‘the people.’ The initiative and referendum are the ultimate and most effective means by which the people, who are less subject to the political and special-interest pressures than legislative bodies elected in the exercise of the right to vote, may express their will.”

Technically, the case is not over, but Janavs’ ruling appears to reject the essence of the district’s case. The city is expected to request a summary judgment to have the case dismissed.

Community’s Intent

City Atty. James P. Lough said: “The city will pursue its legal rights.”

Mayor Etta Simpson said: “I’m happy to the extent that it upholds the right of the people’s initiative and that the initiative wasn’t knocked down. . . . The only thing I’m not happy about is that (the lawsuit) was started. . . . I thought the court of last resort should have been the community . . . and I think the community’s intent is quite clear.”

Simpson and Councilman Roger Creighton--before their election to the council--along with former Planning Commissioner Ed Loosli spearheaded a similar initiative campaign in 1984 that the voters also approved. The 1986 initiative specified the portions of school district properties where voters were maintaining zoning control and added four parks to the list of properties that were to remain as open space, Lough said.


Supt. Don Ryckman said he would not comment on the ruling because he had not seen it and because the school board has not met to discuss it. The district’s attorneys could not be reached for comment.

The district--which has had severe enrollment losses in recent years--wanted to sell some of the properties to pay for an estimated $3.5 million in renovations at its only operating school--Hermosa Valley, according to the lawsuit.

Sale Sought

Former Supt. Marilyn Corey previously said that the district wants to sell five lots of the former Prospect Heights school site and estimated that they would be worth up to five times as much if zoned single-family residential rather than open space. The district had planned on leasing the remaining three surplus sites, but their uses as rental properties depend on the zoning, she had said.

The city has spent at least $50,000 defending the case, Lough said. The district refused a City Council request to disclose how much money it has spent on the case. “That’s the unfortunate thing about this lawsuit,” Lough said, “the citizens are paying both attorneys. . . . This has been a real bitter fight.”