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California

Judge rejects challenge to Venice homeless shelter

Residents voice opposition to the shelter during a 2018 town hall.
Venice resident Dara Lasky, center, voices her opposition during a 2018 town hall about plans to put a homeless shelter on a vacant lot.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles can move forward with plans to open a homeless shelter in Venice after a L.A. County Superior Court judge rejected a legal challenge to the project.

The decision was welcomed by City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and other coastal parts of Los Angeles.

“I’m grateful we can move forward in our work to provide an alternative to the current nightmare of sidewalk encampments in our neighborhoods and people literally dying on our streets,” Bonin said Friday.

City officials voted last year to approve a 154-bed temporary shelter blocks from the beach in Venice, a neighborhood that is home to an eclectic boardwalk, steep rents and one of the biggest populations of homeless people in the city. It was slated for an abandoned bus yard that spans more than three acres.

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The plan triggered an uproar in Venice, where many residents argued that the site was too close to homes and schools. The Venice Stakeholders Assn. sued over the plan, arguing that the city and other government agencies had failed to properly review how “this large and extraordinary project” would affect the neighborhood.

The shelter, the group argued, would be a “magnet” for homeless encampments, bring noise and filth, and diminish public safety. More people than intended will gather there, they said, because the site “will not have sufficient space for all the homeless.”

City leaders countered that the project would alleviate neighborhood nuisances tied to homelessness, not exacerbate them. Bonin argued there was a “moral imperative” to set up the shelter where there was the greatest need on the streets.

Attorneys for the city also argued that the project is exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires government agencies to consider the effects of new development, because opening the shelter is “necessary to prevent or mitigate an emergency” — the homelessness crisis.

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At an October hearing, Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff didn’t seem swayed by some of the city’s arguments. But Beckloff held off making a ruling because Los Angeles officials had gotten an assist from California legislators — a new law that makes it harder to block L.A. homeless shelters and housing.

This fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1197, which exempts any Los Angeles shelter or homeless housing project from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) if it gets funding from key state and local sources. Beckloff said at the October hearing that the law seemed to be “tailor made” for the Venice shelter, which had spurred litigation before AB 1197 passed.

The Venice Stakeholders Assn. argued that the new law could not be applied retroactively to the shelter project, nor could the city make it subject to that law after the fact, through a later resolution stating that the Venice shelter was exempt under AB 1197. The group also asserted that AB 1197 was invalid because it improperly singled out Los Angeles.

Beckloff ultimately ruled in favor of the city.

In a tentative decision this week, the judge found that the state law exempted the Venice shelter from environmental review and rejected arguments that AB 1197 was invalid. He confirmed that ruling in a later order rejecting the challenge to the project.

Venice Stakeholders Assn. President Mark Ryavec said the state law that undercut their case was an example of “moral corruption in the state,” showing that “if you have enough political clout, you can change the rules.”

“It is simply unfair for the state to say that everyone in the state — except for the residents of Los Angeles — has certain rights under CEQA to question the environmental impacts of a project and ask that they be mitigated,” Ryavec said, complaining that the city had gotten the state to “move the goalpost” after its lawsuit was filed.

Attorney Jeff Lewis, who represented the Venice group, said they were still reviewing the court order and evaluating whether to appeal.

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“AB 1197 is a new, untested law and we believe that by singling out the city of Los Angeles the Legislature may have stepped out of the bounds of its authority,” Lewis said. The decision, he said, did not address “substantive issues of traffic, parking and noise.”

In reaction to the ruling, City Atty. Mike Feuer said Friday that in the face of an urgent need for more housing for homeless people, “needless litigation brought to obstruct that goal benefits no one — not the thousands of homeless residents who desperately need shelter, nor other residents and businesses who properly demand progress in reducing homelessness.”

A Bonin spokesman said the Venice shelter is expected to open in January or February. Beckloff previously ruled against a push by the Venice Stakeholders Assn. to halt construction, which has continued at the Sunset Avenue site during the legal battle.

The decision comes a week after another Superior Court judge concluded that AB 1197 rendered a lawsuit by another Venice group moot. That group had sued to overturn two ordinances meant to ease the way for homeless housing. AB 1197 deemed those ordinances exempt from CEQA, which was a core part of the legal challenge.


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