Court Will Reconsider Housing Ruling

Times Staff Writer

In an unusual action, the state Supreme Court said Thursday that it will reconsider a December ruling requiring local authorities to provide details of proposed low-rent public housing projects before seeking their approval by voters.

The move came after state and local officials asked the court to at least limit the effect of the ruling to permit some previously authorized housing to be built without going back before the electorate.

The December decision, reached in a 4-3 vote, had caused widespread concern among housing authorities by threatening the validity of about 70,000 housing units in the state--including 30,000 in Los Angeles--that had been approved in previous elections but not yet built.

In a brief order Thursday, the court granted a petition for rehearing by two prospective project tenants in Berkeley who contended that the decision incorrectly interpreted a 39-year-old state constitutional provision requiring voter approval of low-rent public housing projects.


The tenants urged that if the court’s ruling was allowed to remain in effect, the justices should make clear that it should be applied only to housing referendums in the future--not those already held.

The court did not specify which aspects of the December ruling would be reconsidered, nor did it indicate when reargument before the justices will be held. Under newly adopted court procedures, decisions are to be issued within 90 days after argument.

Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Dov Samuel Lesel called Thursday’s action “terrific,” and said he hopes that the court will allow the city and other municipalities to go forward with housing already in the planning stage or projects that had been described in at least partial detail to the voters.

Lesel noted, however, that in view of the shortage of available funds, even 1,500 units “would be as many as we could build in the next three years.”


The December ruling invalidated a longstanding practice in California in which municipalities, in seeking voter approval of projects, provided only a general description of the proposal and the number of units to be built.

A group of residents challenging the practice in two housing referendums in Berkeley contended that voters could not be expected to fairly decide the merits of such proposals without details of the project.

City officials, backed by authorities from Los Angeles and other communities, said it is difficult to provide details at an early stage of a project and that doing so would encourage organized opposition and allow racial prejudice or other factors to play a role in housing referendums.

On Dec. 19, the court, in a decision by Justice Stanley Mosk, held that voters must be told the size and type of a proposed project--such as housing for the elderly or for families. And while officials need not “pinpoint” the site, they must at least disclose the community in which the project would be constructed, Mosk said.

In dissent, Justice John A. Arguelles assailed the majority for a “radical departure” from governmental interpretation of the law and said the ruling would “seriously set back” the development plans of dozens of municipalities.

In another action Thursday, the justices let stand a November appellate court ruling barring the state and the City of Los Angeles from asserting far-reaching control over the Ballona Lagoon near Marina del Rey.

Attorneys said the action may be the last chapter in a 24-year legal battle over control of the land. In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court, reversing a decision by the state Supreme Court, ruled that the state may not invoke its “public trust” doctrine to secure public access to the lagoon and preserve the waterway as open space.

In a subsequent action, the city and state authorities contended that subdivision maps and other documents provided an implied right of access that would enable authorities to exert control without resorting to eminent domain proceedings. But a state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles rejected that contention in a ruling Nov. 22.


The justices Thursday refused to hear an appeal of the appellate decision by the city and state.

Los Angeles Assistant City Atty. Edward C. Dygert said he was “certainly disappointed” with the court’s action, but said it apparently will have little immediate practical impact.

Dygert noted that a settlement has been reached between the city and Summa Corp., providing that the southern portion of the lagoon will remain in its natural state. And if owners of the northern portion proceed with plans for development, authorities will still seek some accommodation for preservation of that area, he said.