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City's Zoning Supercedes Easement For Equine Use, Court Determines

Local zoning trumps a valid easement, the Second District Court of Appeal has ruled. In a case from Los Angeles, the court determined that one property owner's easement on his neighbor's property was valid but unenforceable because it violated the zoning.

The situation is this. John Blankenship owns a half-acre lot in Sunland, a quasi-rural area off the 210 Freeway in northwest Los Angeles. He also owns an easement, acquired by a previous landowner in 1994, on three-quarters of an acre of adjacent property. The easement permits the keeping and enjoyment of horses. The new owner of the neighboring property, Henri Baccouche, filed a lawsuit seeking to extinguish the easement on the corner of his 4-acre parcel. Both lots are zoned "residential estate."

Baccouche argued that, under the city's zoning ordinance, the keeping of horses is permitted only in conjunction with a residential use. Because his property is vacant, Baccouche argued, the equine easement was invalid.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Grimes ruled for Blankenship. She found the easement valid and determined that, because Blankenship's property contains his house, the easement did not violate the city's zoning ordinance.

Baccouche appealed, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the Second District, Division Four, overturned the lower court in part. The Second District agreed with the lower court that the easement is valid. However, the appellate court determined that enforcement of the easement was not permitted.

Both sides and the court relied heavily on Teachers Ins. & Annuity Assn. v. Furlotti, (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1487. Also from Los Angeles, that case involved a commercial building's easement to use an alley shared with an apartment building. The boundary between the commercial zone and the residential zone ran down the middle of the alley, and the owner of the apartment building sought to prohibit commercial use of the residential portion of the alley, which would essentially make the alley impassible for trucks.

Ruling for the apartment building owner, the court cited Municipal Code 12.21.C.5(h): "No accessory building or use shall be located on a property in a more restrictive zone than that required for the main building or main use to which it is accessory." Thus, the use of the residential portion of the alley for commercial deliveries, loading and trash collection was not permissible. "Private agreements as to the use of property are immaterial to the validity of a particular zoning ordinance," the Teachers court concluded.

In the case at hand, both properties have residential estate zoning, but that zoning does not permit the keeping of horses except as part of a residential use. "To the extent the easement purports to grant Blankenship the right to keep horses on the undeveloped Baccouche lot, it is unenforceable because it would allow a use not permitted by the zoning, as in Teachers," the court ruled.

The house on Blankenship's property does not overcome the restriction. "Section 12.03 expressly requires that the accessory use be on the same lot as the residence," the court ruled.

The Case:
Baccouche v. Blankenship, No. B192291, 07 C.D.O.S. 11006, 2007DJDAR 14188. Filed September 11, 2007.
The Lawyers:
For Baccouche: David Romley, (818) 951-9469.
For Blankenship: Edward Russell, (949) 622-4333.

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