Eatery may cause code enforcement change

CITY HALL — A string of recent code violations at a Glendale restaurant has city officials re-evaluating its long-held policy of letting businesses continue operations as they try to gain code compliance.

The city attorney’s office sent a letter on March 10 to Adams Square restaurant De Revolution, which is accused of violating several city zoning regulations, demanding that the eatery halt operations until it gains code compliance, deputy City Atty. Dorine Martirosian said.

Before this case, the city has been reluctant to demand that businesses afoul of city zoning codes shut down, City Atty. Scott Howard said. Instead, alleged violators are typically sent letters that urge them to fix their infractions, or else risk revocation of their use permits and potentially face legal action.

The practice is part of what some city officials say is a business-friendly approach to code enforcement that, historically, has led to compliance. But critics of the policy say it lacks teeth. “It’s kind of like gumming them to death,” said Michael Teahan, president of the Adams Hill Homeowners Assn.

Neighborhood Services Administrator Sam Engel, whose department responds to complaints about alleged zoning regulations, said most businesses that receive enforcement letters from his office fix their issues.

When businesses don’t voluntarily comply, Neighborhood Services either requests a revocation hearing from the zoning administrator or transfers the case to the city attorney’s office, which can take legal action to remedy the infractions, Engel said. Whether the case goes first to the zoning administrator or the city attorney is determined on a case-by-case basis, Engel said.

But until now, the city has not gone so far as to demand that a violator, even temporarily, cease operations, he said.

“We have shut down businesses that have had health and safety violations. . . . Have we ever shut down a business for use violations? No, but we’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had so many continuous use violations like we’re dealing with now,” said Engel, who has been with Neighborhood Services since its inception 18 years ago. “Historically, we haven’t done this, but we have reached the point where we have to do this.”

Enforcement issues

Neighborhood Services alleged last month that De Revolution is operating with an invalid zoning-use certificate and conditional-use permit to sell alcohol.

Both permits were acquired in 2006 for a now-defunct deli and tobacco shop that occupied two side-by-side units in the Angela Plaza shopping center. Those permits were rendered invalid last year when the owners eliminated the wall between the units and opened a restaurant equipped with a full bar and an elevated stage for live music, Engel said.

Engel’s office sent De Revolution a letter on Jan. 15 outlining the alleged violations, but when the restaurant seemed to drag its feet, the case was transferred to the city prosecutor, he said.

The city attorney’s office sent a letter to the eatery on Jan. 23, giving the owners 30 days to attain a valid zoning-use certificate and conditional-use permit to sell alcohol, Engel said.

In order to operate a full-service restaurant with alcohol sales, De Revolution would have to acquire a parking reduction permit because existing on-site parking is inadequate, Senior Assistant City Atty. Michael Garcia said. An application for such a permit would also likely trigger an environmental review, Engel said.

But no such application was made as of the restaurant’s Feb. 29 deadline, Martirosian said. De Revolution co-owner Tamara Sarkisian said on the eve of the deadline that her attorney was working to correct the infractions and that she had been given an extension — a claim Martirosian denied.

The restaurant did, however, request a new zoning-use certificate, but restaurant representatives were told that a new zoning-use certificate would not be approved pending the resolution of the parking reduction permit needed to allow them to operate as a restaurant instead of a deli, Assistant Planning Director Tim Foy said.

Normal recourse would be to file criminal misdemeanor charges against the business, Howard said. No charges have been filed against De Revolution, but the city’s letter demanding that the restaurant cease operations is meant to send a strong message, he said.

“This [letter] is going to be a lot clearer and direct. . . . It’s going to say ‘you’re in violation, close your doors’ . . . as opposed to ‘you’re in violation, you’ve got 10 days,’” Howard said.

If the business does not comply, Howard said, the city’s plan would be twofold: “File in court, and after, ask the court to file a preliminary order to close their doors.”

A representative from De Revolution refused to comment on the letter.

  Caught in the middle

Critics of the city’s usual enforcement policies say that residents whose quality of life is harmed by alleged violations shouldn’t have to wait for enforcement as the issue navigates the courts.

Teahan pointed to Glendale residents Robert and Sharon Thompson, who are facing a $2-million slander lawsuit for their attempt to expose allegedly illegal banquet operations at the Montrose Collection, whose owners have staunchly argued that their right to operate primarily as a banquet hall predates a 2002 city ordinance that prohibits restaurants from using more than 30% of their seats for private parties.

Zoning Administrator Edith Fuentes revoked the Montrose Collection’s parking reduction permit in April, saying that the business had violated a condition attached to the permit prohibiting banquet hall operations. But Fuentes maintained the business’ zoning-use certificate, which is for full-service restaurant use, and gave it four months to demonstrate that it could operate as such.

The Montrose Collection has since secured the additional parking spaces that had been forgiven by the parking reduction permit, business co-owner Takui Aivazian said. But the deadline Fuentes set for them to prove that the business is not a banquet hall came and went with no action. It has been more than six months since the deadline passed, and Fuentes said she still needs more evidence, specifically sales receipts, to determine whether the business is in violation of their zoning-use certificate. Frustrated that city code enforcement attempts appeared ineffective, the Thompsons — who live behind the eatery and say they were often disrupted by late-night parties — took it upon themselves to collect evidence that the business was operating as a banquet hall. The couple took pictures and reported their findings to the City Council.

Montrose Collection owners now say the Thompsons’ watchdog actions hurt the business’ reputation and steered away potential customers. The legal complaint’s next scheduled hearing is March 27.

But as Fuentes holds out for more evidence to determine whether the Montrose Collection is in violation of its zoning-use certificate, the city attorney’s office is pursuing its own legal action against the Montrose Collection. The city’s criminal complaint alleges that the business violated the so-called “30% rule,” which is meant to curb restaurants from operating primarily as banquet halls.

City Councilman John Drayman said the city’s lawsuit points to a disconnect between the city’s legal and zoning departments.

“We’re off suing them for the same basic reason the parking permit was revoked, and yet [the city attorney’s office] is not requiring receipts,” Drayman said. “This is one inconsistency on top of another inconsistency balanced on top of a bureaucratic conundrum.”

Robert Thompson blames the city for the lawsuit he’s now fighting.

“My beef here is there’s something wrong with the processes as far as the protection of the citizens over violated codes,” Thompson said.

  Correcting violations

While the city’s handling of De Revolution seems to mark a departure from previous enforcement strategies, Howard defended the city’s historic unwillingness to order businesses to halt operations when they fail to correct violations.

Physically shutting down a business for land-use-related code violations would pose legal risks to the city, he said.

When confronted by the city about alleged code violations, many businesses contend that they’re in compliance, and their constitutional right to due process requires the city to pursue legal actions before shutting a place down, Howard said. The same concept will apply with De Revolution: While the city is demanding that the business stop operations, city officials won’t be padlocking the doors themselves, he said.

Plus, the threat of legal action usually leads to compliance, he said. In 90% of prior cases when the city has threatened misdemeanor charges, businesses have gained compliance on their own before a complaint was filed, he said. The other 10% became compliant as a result of a court order or conviction, he said.

Sometimes that legal process is quick, but times it can last more than a year, Howard said.

“Courts are reluctant, and for good reason, to close down businesses unless they are an imminent hazard or if they exhibit a complete disregard for local agencies’ rules,” he said.


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