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L.A. lawmakers’ shortcut backfired for animal rescue shops

Yvette Berke, left, and Debrah Regal, are the co-founders of Petopia Animal Rescue in Woodland Hills. A court has rejected a city zoning decision that allowed the shop to operate in a commercial mall.

Yvette Berke, left, and Debrah Regal, are the co-founders of Petopia Animal Rescue in Woodland Hills. A court has rejected a city zoning decision that allowed the shop to operate in a commercial mall.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Three years ago, Los Angeles lawmakers decided to ban pet shops from selling commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits, arguing that such sales only added to the number of stray animals citywide.

Instead, they said, such shops could offer up rescued pets from humane groups or city shelters, sparing them from being put to death if they weren’t adopted. Banning pets from commercial breeders was meant to encourage the rise of centers such as Petopia Animal Rescue, a nonprofit-run shop that tries to coax shoppers to take home a feline friend from its storefront in a Woodland Hills mall.

But a recent legal defeat for the city could end up undercutting the idea behind Petopia and similar businesses.

Petopia, which finds homes for rescued cats among the shoppers meandering a Woodland Hills mall, has to relocate to an industrial zone because of a court decision that went against Los Angeles.

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Months ago, a Superior Court judge tossed out a city decision that smoothed the way for such shops to operate in malls and other commercial areas rather than in industrial zones, as city laws might otherwise require.

L.A. officials had wanted to make it easier for businesses like Petopia to open their doors in retail areas, where foot traffic is higher. But they tried to use a shortcut that ultimately got them into hot water in court. A local activist concerned about noise and other nuisances from facilities that housed grown animals sued the city, saying it had deprived the public of a chance to weigh in.

Now at least two rescue centers, including Petopia, say they are struggling to find suitable space in Los Angeles. Unless they get special permission to operate in commercial zones—a process that city officials say can be long and costly—the only places they can seek space in Los Angeles are in industrial areas dotted with recycling centers and tire shops.

Being in a mall or another commercial hub is crucial for Petopia, says Debrah Regal, founder of Valley Cats Inc., the nonprofit that runs the Petopia store. Even on the sleepiest of afternoons at the mall, shoppers drift in to see the kitties: a twentysomething in a ball cap who ruefully remembers the cat he left behind in the Philippines, a woman still mourning her Pomeranian.

But the future of the Woodland Hills mall, now pocked with empty storefronts, appears uncertain. Petopia says its lease expires at the end of November. As Regal and her business partner Yvette Berke hunt for a new location, they have been pointed to buildings next to railroad tracks or alongside landfills, auto dismantlers or crematoriums.

The May decision was one of the latest in a string of courtroom defeats for the city when it comes to planning and zoning. Many of those battles have centered on Hollywood, where court rulings have halted the construction of a Target, invalidated construction permits for a high-rise apartment building and tossed out a controversial plan that would allow taller buildings near transit stops.

Attorney Robert P. Silverstein, who went up against the city in the Hollywood planning cases, was not involved in the lawsuit over the pet shops. But Silverstein said the legal saga over shops like Petopia reflects a broader weakness in how city government operates — that “often the city gets in trouble because it ignores the law to reach a desired result.”

This time, the legal tussle was tied to the codes that control L.A. zoning: Pet shops are allowed in commercial areas, but kennels that house four or more grown animals overnight must set up in industrial zones unless they seek special permission. In the past, the line between the two was clearer because pet shops traditionally kept puppies and kittens, rather than adult animals.

But the new law complicated the matter because pet shops were now supposed to provide rescue animals, whether they were puppies and kittens or fully grown pets. If they kept at least four grown animals overnight, they would fall under the same rules as kennels — a fact that one rescue group eyeing a commercial storefront in L.A. pointed out to city officials, questioning whether it would have to get the special permit.

L.A. leaders passed another law to change the definition of “kennel,” but altered only part of the city code, not the zoning code. Paul Michael Neuman, a spokesman for City Councilman Paul Koretz, said city lawyers didn’t alter the zoning code because that would have involved a longer and more elaborate process. Instead, a city zoning official issued an “interpretation” that pet shops that followed the new rules wouldn’t be classified as kennels. That allowed stores like Petopia to do business in commercial zones without getting the special permit.

And that, in turn, spurred a lawsuit from activist Phyllis Daugherty, who argued that nearby businesses and residents could face noise, foul smells and other hazards from facilities full of grown animals. Requiring the facilities to get that special permit, she said, would help ensure protections for neighboring businesses, residents and the animals.

Her lawsuit argued that the city had sidestepped public hearings by treating the question of whether such shops were kennels as simply an interpretation of the code, rather than a change to the rules.

The only way around it is we have to look outside of the city of Los Angeles now, or we’re sentenced to being in dangerous, filthy conditions.

Yvette Berke

“The city did this in the dark of night, without the public’s knowledge,” her attorney Harold Holmes said. “And it appears that was by design, to reduce potential opposition from residents and business owners.”

Ultimately a judge tossed out the city interpretation of the kennel rules, saying the zoning official had overstepped her authority. And that meant a shop like Petopia, which keeps four or more grown animals overnight, now counts as a kennel. Daugherty says that if the stores want to operate in commercial zones, they can apply for city permission and undergo the required process.

“All they have to do is follow the law,” she said.

But at Petopia, Regal and Berke said they didn’t understand the restrictions when they first started looking for space, and now don’t have enough time to get the needed permit. Neuman, the Koretz spokesman, said the process can take six months to a year. In the past, the city has estimated that pursuing such a permit can cost more than $10,000.

“The only way around it is we have to look outside of the city of Los Angeles now, or we’re sentenced to being in dangerous, filthy conditions,” Berke said.

Petopia isn’t the only shop in a fix: Rachel Kennedy, who heads Lucky Puppy Animal Rescue, said her Studio City shop was meant to make it easy and even chic to adopt a rescued animal. She says more than 1,400 animals have found their homes among shoppers strolling past the trendy boutiques on Ventura Boulevard. But after a clash with Lucky Puppy’s landlord, the group’s lease ran out at the end of October.

Kennedy said that if Lucky Puppy had to set up shop in an industrial area, “we might as well just be in the shelter system.” As of Friday, its Facebook page said it was going on hiatus as it continued to search for a new location.

In the wake of L.A.'s courtroom defeat, the City Council has asked the planning department to team up with city lawyers to address the zoning status of shops like Petopia. (Shops that do not keep pets overnight — for instance, those that bring in animals for adoption only during the day — have not been affected by the court decision.) But any changes are unlikely to come soon enough for rescue centers currently trying to relocate.

If Petopia can’t snag a new location soon, it may have to find foster homes to care for its cats.

“We’re not going to give up,” Regal said one recent afternoon at the shop, which is already starting to pack up. “We’re rescuers.”

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesEmily

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