Judge Deals Setback to Councilwoman Opposing Large Project : Zoning: Joy Picus says the decision, if upheld, means that any disgruntled developer can get a court to reverse City Council actions.


In a blow to City Councilwoman Joy Picus' effort to head off a commercial complex proposed for Warner Ridge, a Superior Court judge on Tuesday gave Los Angeles 30 days to rezone the Woodland Hills property to permit the office project to go forward.

In July, Judge John R. Zebrowski had given the council the option of designating the property for either residential or commercial use. But Zebrowski said Tuesday that he had changed his mind because of a recent state Supreme Court ruling. He told the council that it must rezone the property for commercial development within 30 days.

The 21.5-acre Warner Ridge property is one of about 15,000 in Los Angeles in which the zoning and planning designations are in conflict. The property is zoned for single-family houses but the Woodland Hills Community Plan designates it for office buildings.

State courts have not clarified whether cities, when faced with such a conflict, must change zoning to match planning, planning to match zoning or whether they have the flexibility to do either. In July, Zebrowski had relied on a Riverside County case in giving the city the option to change either the plan or the zoning. He also had given the city five months to take action.

But since that decision, the judge said Tuesday, the state Supreme Court has largely invalidated the ruling he had relied upon.

Picus and other city officials, while admitting that time was short, said they will appeal Zebrowski's latest ruling as well as continue with an appeal of his July decision.

At issue is whether to build single-family houses or medium-rise office towers on the property, which is on De Soto Avenue between Pierce College and Warner Center.

In January, Picus won accolades from many Woodland Hills homeowners by persuading the council to reject the office complex proposed by Warner Ridge Associates and rezone the land for houses. She said office towers would inundate surrounding streets with traffic and smog.

At her behest, the council moved to change the community plan designation to conform to the new zoning, a process that normally takes six months or more.

On Tuesday, Picus said she was "angry, dismayed and shocked that the city's planning process can be pushed aside by a judge's whim."

She said that if the Warner Ridge developers "get away with this, any developer who doesn't like what the council does can run to court to get it reversed."

But Albert Spound, a partner in the Warner Ridge project, said he was happy with the ruling. "We now expect to get our commercial zoning in 30 days and then hopefully we can get started on this project."

Spound contends that because the developers bought the land on the assumption that offices could be built there, it is unfair and illegal for the city to abruptly change the zoning in response to pressure from nearby homeowners. Houses would be far less profitable than offices, he said.

The partnership says it pays $330,000 a month on loans on the vacant property.

The developers, a partnership of The Spound Co. and Johnson Wax Development Co., originally proposed 810,000 square feet of office space.

But Spound said Tuesday that he and his partners "have never been set in concrete on this. We have always been willing to talk, but the city has been unwilling."

Picus said Tuesday she was "not willing to talk compromise on this. I'm not giving up."

She added that if forced to permit commercial development on the site, "it certainly will not be the type and magnitude of development originally proposed. I will try to put as many restrictions as possible on the land."

Robert Gross, president of Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization, said he was "not at all pessimistic" about Tuesday's ruling "because it doesn't seem to be supported by anything."

"I feel that eventually the city's right to zone property as it sees fit will be upheld on appeal," he said.

Times staff writer John Schwada contributed to this article.

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