A property owner's challenge of a Sierra Madre City Council resolution directing a committee to consider stricter regulation of hillside development has been thrown out by the Second District Court of Appeal.

The unanimous three-judge appellate panel upheld a trial court judge who had ruled that the situation was not "ripe" for judicial review. Although the resolution might lead to less potential development, the resolution itself had no binding implications for the property owner's land, the Second District determined. "Courts may not render advisory opinions on disputes which the parties anticipate might arise but which do not presently exist," Justice Madeleine Flier wrote for the court.

Sierra Madre is a small city on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley. Development in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains within the city has long been controversial. In August 2005, the City Council adopted an urgency ordinance, extended the following month, that essentially requires developers within a moratorium area to comply with provisions of the city's hillside management zone (HMZ). Among other things, it bases minimum lot sizes on the severity of the slope.

In November 2005, the City Council adopted a resolution appointing an HMZ advisory committee to study and provide recommendations on potential revisions to the HMZ regulations. The resolution urged consideration of minimum lot sizes as large as 1 acre.

In January 2006, Stonehouse Homes submitted an application for a vesting tract map for 25 acres owned by the company, and an application for a conditional use permit to develop under the HMZ provisions. The city returned the applications because they were incomplete. Stonehouse filed updated applications on April 17, 2006. The next day, the City Council voted 3-2 to approve a new moratorium resolution directing the Planning Commission and the HMZ advisory committee to prepare final recommendations for specific conditions and new subdivision lot dimensions for the HMZ. Thirty days later, the city again returned Stonehouse's applications as incomplete. Stonehouse appealed the staff's conclusion to the Planning Commission but lost.

While an appeal of the applications' completeness to the City Council was pending, Stonehouse filed a lawsuit. It alleged that the resolution adopted in April violated the property owner's due process and equal protection rights and was, therefore, invalid on its face. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian ruled for the city, concluding the developer had not proven its case and was seeking an advisory decision that courts do not issue.

Continuing to maintain the resolution was invalid on its face, Stonehouse on appeal argued that the case was ripe for court review because the company had no administrative remedy available. Stonehouse argued that the resolution required the Planning Commission to prepare specific zoning, so the resolution was essentially legislation. But the court found the resolution "does no such thing."

"The adoption of the resolution alone implicated no rights of Stonehouse. The resolution was not an ordinance that amended the HMZ provisions. Nor did it require the Planning Commission to recommend adoption of such an ordinance. The moratorium resolution simply requested preparation of final recommendations regarding potential amendments to the HMZ provisions and provided notice to the public about the changes under consideration," Flier wrote.

Stonehouse contended a court ruling was needed because the company sought to use the "safe harbor" provision of the Subdivision Map Act to prevent the city from imposing new conditions on the already-filed applications. "The problem with Stonehouse's contention," Justice Flier wrote, "is that any alleged entitlement to a safe harbor is purely conjectural absent a final application, a newly adopted HMZ ordinance and application of such an ordinance to Stonehouse."

Thus, the court concluded, there is no "justiciable controversy" for it to decide.

The Case:
Stonehouse Homes v. City of Sierra Madre, No. B195552, 08 C.D.O.S. 13133. Filed October 10, 2008.
The Lawyers:
For Stonehouse: Garrett Hanken, Greenberg, Glusker, Fields, Claman & Machtinger, (310) 553-3610.
For the city: Sandra Levin, Colantuono & Levin, (213) 533-4155.