A terse California Supreme Court decision Friday gave the city of Los Angeles some relief from developers seeking to piggyback on a lower-court ruling that allows a builder to proceed with a large office complex that the city had doggedly opposed.
In a one-sentence ruling, the high court ordered that a Dec. 31 state Court of Appeal decision--devastating to the city's cause in the Warner Ridge lawsuit--cannot be cited as precedent in similar lawsuits filed by development interests. The court acted at the request of both the plaintiffs and defendants in the suit.
But the prevailing view among legal experts and city officials is that Friday's ruling will not unravel the January agreement that settled the bitterly fought Warner Ridge lawsuit.
Nor will the ruling shield the city against similar lawsuits in the future, for although the suit cannot be cited as precedent, the principles upon which it was based still stand.
The settlement ending the suit, formally approved by a judge this week, permits Warner Ridge Associates to build a 690,000-square-foot commercial project and 125 condominiums on 21.5 acres in Woodland Hills.
In the suit, Warner Ridge Associates argued that the city illegally zoned its property, thus preventing it from building a commercial project allowed by the area's Community Plan.
Several land-use attorneys said the state Supreme Court ruling, despite its potential effect on future lawsuits, does not alter the settlement ending the Warner Ridge suit.
Even Councilwoman Joy Picus, a bitter foe of the Warner Ridge project, said Friday's ruling will not set the stage for a reversal of the settlement. "I've pretty much written that off," she said. "There's nothing we can do there."
But Antonio Rossman, attorney for the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization, disagreed. Friday's decision could help the homeowners' challenge of the settlement, he said.
"It's great news," Rossman said. "It reaffirms our contention that Warner Ridge is not entitled to what they are getting in the settlement." Rossman interpreted the state Supreme Court decision to mean that the appeals court ruling was "bad law."
But Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas, who signed the order, offered no explanation for the high court's decision.
Although there is disagreement about its effect on the Warner Ridge project, there was unanimous agreement that the high court's ruling precludes other developer-litigants from citing the Warner Ridge case as precedent in other lawsuits.
And that's at least a partial victory for the city, attorneys say.
"They can't just cite the Warner Ridge appeals court ruling and build. They'll have to reargue their cases from the start," said Carlyle Hall, a private attorney hired to advise the city on the ramifications of the Warner Ridge litigation. Hall is an attorney well-known for his work representing homeowner groups.
The city joined with Woodland Hills homeowners in urging the California Supreme Court to "depublish" the Dec. 31 ruling. As a condition of the settlement, Warner Ridge Associates agreed not to oppose such a move.
Hall said the court's ruling was not a sign that the city erred in settling the case. Rather, he said, it showed that settling was a good strategy. The court would not have depublished the Dec. 31 ruling without the consent of Warner Ridge Associates, Hall speculated.
Two lawsuits by disappointed developers seeking to capitalize on the Warner Ridge case already have been filed against the city, one this week.
These cases say the Warner Ridge appeals court ruling established the principle that when the city's community plan allows for greater development than its zoning, the density by the plan prevails.
In the Warner Ridge case, the Community Plan called for commercial development on the site. But when the developer sought the commercial zoning ordinance needed to build an 810,000-square-foot project, the City Council--led by Picus--blocked the way and instead awarded the developer zoning that allowed only 65 single-family houses.
Warner Ridge Associates then sued and won a string of court decisions that finally prompted the city to settle.
John Bowman, a land-use attorney, said Friday's ruling will not help--but also will not cripple--a $10-million lawsuit he recently filed for Duke Development Corp., a real estate company that contends the city illegally deprived it of its right to build 41 houses on property it owns in Tujunga.
The Duke lawsuit cites the Warner Ridge appeals court ruling. But Bowman said Friday's Supreme Court decision leaves intact other cases that formed the historical foundation for the Warner Ridge ruling.
Bowman's firm, Reznik & Reznik of Sherman Oaks, in December also filed a $2.5-million lawsuit for another Woodland Hills developer--Khanabab Nourmand--that is a virtual mirror image of the arguments raised by the Warner Ridge plaintiffs.