Zoning Structure Is Under Attack : Government: Loss of Warner Ridge case sparks another lawsuit. City officials fear that more such costly battles are on the way.


The city of Los Angeles, which lost a landmark zoning lawsuit Tuesday, has been sued by other landowners with a similar complaint, deepening officials' fears that the ruling will encourage many costly court actions against the city.

The new lawsuit comes as the city struggles to come to terms with the decision issued by the state Court of Appeal in a $100-million dispute over development of Warner Ridge in Woodland Hills.

As in the Warner Ridge case, the latest lawsuit alleges that the city wrongfully denied developers zoning approval that they were entitled to under the community plan.

The action, seeking $2.5 million in damages, was filed by a Woodland Hills couple whose attorney said their case was inspired by the Warner Ridge suit.

City officials had said before the appeals court ruling they feared that a loss would trigger a flood of similar lawsuits that could oblige City Hall to embark upon a costly new zoning consistency program when the city is fiscally strapped. The city has estimated that as many as 8,000 parcels may be inappropriately zoned if the Warner Ridge decision stands.

City Planning Department Director Melanie Fallon said Thursday that she was surprised by the ruling and her staff is "brainstorming to look at our options."

"If this decision holds, the tough part will not be this Warner Ridge case, but its far-reaching implications for us," Fallon said.

The three-judge state appeals court ruled unanimously that the city had illegally zoned the controversial Warner Ridge parcel for residential use when the area's community plan called for commercial use.

Warner Ridge Associates, the development team that owns the land, sued the city for $100 million, alleging that its investment was destroyed by Councilwoman Joy Picus, who represents the area, in an irresponsible bid to curry political favor with homeowners by using the zoning laws to block the office complex the developers planned to build.

The City Council, which will decide whether to appeal, has not met since the ruling was announced.

The same day as the appeals court ruling, Khanbaba and Alieh Nourmand of Woodland Hills filed suit against the city, making allegations similar to those in the Warner Ridge case.

Fred Gaines, an attorney with Reznik & Reznik, a land-use law firm handling the Nourmand case, said the appeals court's ruling gave a big boost to property owners such as his clients by clarifying their rights. Gaines said the Nourmand lawsuit was inspired by the Warner Ridge litigation, which was initiated in 1990.

The Nourmands' attempt to rezone their 7.5-acre property in the 22200 block of Philprimm Street for a 94-unit condo project was denied by the City Council in October, even though the community plan identified their property as suitable for multifamily dwellings. Instead, the city zoned the property to allow only a handful of estate-sized lots.

Their property is also in Picus' district.

Meanwhile, council President John Ferraro revealed that a secret meeting was convened Dec. 20 by him and Councilman Hal Bernson, chairman of the city's planning committee, with Mayor Tom Bradley to explore a compromise settlement of the Warner Ridge lawsuit. But Picus, also in attendance, continued to spurn such efforts, according to sources who attended the meeting. Picus declined comment.

Under state legislation passed in 1978, the city is required to achieve consistency between zoning and its community plans. But resolving the thousands of zoning-versus-plan discrepancies has been a complex, time-consuming and costly undertaking for the Planning Department.

To speed up the process, the city developed the planning concept of "lesser included zoning," which was ruled illegal by the court in the Warner Ridge lawsuit, attorney Gaines said. That concept held that the zoning on any property was consistent with the applicable plan, as long as the zoning allowed development uses equal to or less intense than the plan permitted.

Following this reasoning, the city rationalized that zoning the Warner Ridge property for 65 single-family homes was consistent with the community plan, which called for commercial--and thus much heavier--development of the property. But the Court of Appeal called that concept illogical and illegal.

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